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Manufacturing and Millennials: Why Closing The Generation Gap Is Critical

Posted By Paul Tate, November 18, 2014 at 9:21 AM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

You must have been asleep if you haven’t noticed the global indicators over the last few months showing the U.S. manufacturing sector enjoying a much-welcomed period of sustained growth. 

But continued expansion for U.S. companies in the longer term will depend on more than just boosting production capacity, investing in new automation, and increasing operational efficiency. It will also require a critical pool of both skilled and unskilled employees who can help drive fast-growing companies forward.

Without new skill sets and fresh young employees for the future, how long can the current growth trend continue? And whose fault is it that the next generation is not rushing to manufacturers’ doors looking for an exciting and rewarding career?

As the latest annual manufacturing industry survey by ThomasNet points out, “For the industry to sustain its steady climb, all the fundamentals need to be in place, and one of them is missing - a robust pipeline of skilled workers. Having the people to operate the machines, work the lines, and create new products is mission-critical. Yes - manufacturers are hiring and developing their people - but to keep up with the opportunities at hand, they will need to recruit faster, smarter, and harder.”

The survey found that more than half (52 percent) of the U.S. manufacturing leaders polled expect to add staff over the next several months, up significantly from the 42 percent who planned to hire last year. However, eighty percent of those respondents are of Baby Boomer age or over, and while 38 percent of them say they plan to leave their jobs at some time over the next ten years, most of them admit that they do not have any specific plans to fill their shoes when they depart.

The ingrained attitude of these aging, retirement-ready Baby Boomers is not helping them in their task to entice a fresh new wave of employees either, it seems.

The next generation of employees – often known as Millennials whose ages range from 18-32 today – are destined to comprise about 75 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2025. Yet around 43 percent of the current Baby Boomer manufacturing executives responding to the ThomasNet survey complain that these younger people still perceive manufacturing to be a dirty, blue-collar industry, and that they lack the work ethic and discipline to succeed.

But how is that generational, downbeat management attitude to younger people supposed to help companies attract the brightest new Millennial minds to manufacturing exactly?

Whether you blame the education system, overblown 21st Century career expectations, on-line gaming, trash TV, or even the social networking obsession among today’s youth, something has to change, and in many ways it’s not the Millennials themselves who need to make that transition. It actually needs to start at the top among the Baby Boomer leaders of today’s manufacturing firms.

Firstly, those manufacturing leaders, and the whole manufacturing sector, must do a far better job of explaining what real manufacturing is like today and change the industry’s public image and profile.

Certainly, the Millennial generation has different sets of priorities and expectations compared to their Baby Boomer forerunners. For example, and as we highlighted in these pages earlier this year, Millennials are far more concerned that the companies they choose to work for play a more active and innovative role in solving many of society’s problems. They also expect employers to cultivate a highly innovative, collaborative culture, and that they will be provided with ample and early opportunities to grow their technological expertise and move up into leadership roles.

Yet there are a wealth of examples of how today’s manufacturing industry is now increasingly aligned with Millennial’s value systems and eagerness for technological expertise. The ThomasNet report continues: “Millennials have an opportunity to make a social impact working with sustainable and green technologies, solar energy, and wind power. In addition, survey respondents cite innovations in design and manufacturing software, automation/robotics, and 3D printing as intrinsic to today's jobs.”

The annual ‘Manufacturing Day’ initiative in the U.S. is one approach at changing society’s attitudes to manufacturing, and a highly successful one at that. But what about the other 364 days of the year? Shouldn’t such a critical industry initiative be encouraged to happen on a more continual basis?

Secondly, today’s manufacturing leaders need to create more opportunities for tech-savvy Millennials to get more directly involved in manufacturing – whether these efforts are focused on helping them acquire traditional skills like machining, or building new skills in the increasingly technology-driven fields of plant automation, supply chain management, or new product-based Internet of Things technologies and data analytics.

Worryingly, the ThomasNet report found that right now, most manufacturers (62 percent) say Millennials still represent only a small fraction of their workforce, and eight out of ten (81 percent) have no explicit plans to increase these numbers.

That’s not helpful. It's also shortsighted. So, how could this change?

Perhaps the emerging focus on apprenticeships and vocational training that we’re now seeing across the industry will help excite and attract a new generation of workers into the manufacturing sector.

Perhaps more advanced educational institutions should follow the path set by manufacturing-savvy colleges such as Purdue’s Krannert School of Management, Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, and the University of Pittsburgh, where up to 24 percent of their M.B.A graduates enter a manufacturing career compared to a national average of just 3.8 percent, according to the latest Bloomberg BusinessWeek M.B.A. survey.

Or perhaps new low-entry cost production technologies, such as 3D-printing, that make it easier for ambitious next generation inventors to innovate and create new products, will help young people develop the skills and insights that manufacturing companies will need in the future to survive and compete.  

For now, however, perhaps the best way to move forward is simply for today’s manufacturing leaders to stop complaining about the differences between the generations and start thinking about how they can organize their companies and working cultures to be more attractive to this critical next generation.

As the ThomasNet report concludes; “To take their rightful place as growth leaders, [manufacturers] must embrace the future workforce that will get them there. The path has been laid for them to succeed. The question is whether they'll act in sufficient time. Closing the gaps between Baby Boomers and Millennials is critical to making this happen.”

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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Employee engagement is a problem generally. Customer and employee loyalty drive profits, as documented by many, including Fred Reichheld in his book, “Loyalty”. Engaging the work force is good in general, but essential when working with Millennials. They want to know “why” and don’t respond well to, “because I said so.” Over the past 20+ years, I have helped over 350 companies, including large manufacturing companies like BHP Billiton and Harley Davidson, improve their financial results and improve the lives of the employees who drive those results, by applying open-book principles. This involves soliciting employees input, making the economics of the business transparent, and involving all employees to understand, improve and participate in the economics of the business. This creates the learning organization. This Manufacturing Leadership article provides some additional background: http://www.gilcommunity.com/blog/want-engaged-employees-try-opening-books/ These Harvard Business Review articles, which my partner John Case, (the guy who coined the term Open Book Management and has written two books and countless articles on OBM), provide more background:
The HBR third article speaks about what we call, Customer-Centric Open-Book©, which has been especially effective, by getting the input of both customers and employees. More information and case studies are available at www.openbookcoaching.com. I hope this input is helpful.
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