We Must Do More to Promote Manufacturing as a Rewarding Career Path. Here's How

Feb. 7, 2018
Instead of wringing our hands about how hard it is to fill manufacturing jobs, let’s attack the problem with the same vigor that we would major customer or cost issues in the shop.

Thanks to Steve Minter for his recent insightful and upbeat article (Will Millennials Change Manufacturing?) on the potential impact of millennials on manufacturing. These are wonderful testimonials to the challenging and rewarding careers available now! That’s fantastic news, especially for engineering and other technical degreed students.

The bad news is, according to various estimates, there are still about 6 million manufacturing jobs going unfilled. (See Millions of Manufacturing Jobs Could Go Unfilled and There Have Never Been This Many Job Openings in America)

In my opinion, there are at least two primary reasons for these unfilled positions: 1) applicants don’t have the skills necessary to do the jobs; and 2) potential applicants have a lack of interest in manufacturing largely due to old and outdated paradigms such as factories are unsafe, dirty work places; shift work; and a “manufacturing isn’t cool” image.

Sure, there are still factories out there stuck in the Stone Age, but they are a minority in 2018. It’s time for manufacturing to assert itself into the headlines as a viable, even a preferred occupation for young people, some of whom will love what they read and hear. Others will be surprised and may now consider the prospect of a manufacturing career based simply on the fact their misconceptions have been challenged. Learning to see manufacturing in a new light creates interest regarding the potential opportunities that manufacturing companies offer.

The above links identify the opportunity and need for more people to choose manufacturing as their career paths. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to enjoy long careers in the field, we may take the positives for granted. I’d urge us all to think a bit more outside the box and contemplate how we can help motivate women and men to develop an interest in manufacturing much earlier in our school systems. We need passionate new blood continuously entering our field, individuals who will carry the CI torch with new energy, enthusiasm and commitment.

Let’s agree to start here: America’s manufacturing companies do too little to promote manufacturing as an exciting and rewarding career for both salaried and hourly positions. This is absolutely necessary if we expect to change this recruiting issue from a problem into an opportunity. Most of this needs to happen at the local level. Let’s, en masse, look at the issue both short and long term, and act accordingly now.


1) In the short term we have little choice but to compete with the almighty dollar to recruit basic unskilled or semi-skilled labor positions, so promote the idea that manufacturing pays better than many other positions. For example, a person working in a fast food restaurant may make $10 to $15 per hour working on what amounts to a first or second shift job in a plant. Working in manufacturing, that same person likely would start on 2nd or 3rd shift, which often pays $15 to $25 per hour for unskilled or semi-skilled labor. While these manufacturing positions may not be the ultimate destination for these workers, they are a way for them to get their foot in the door where numerous other opportunities will be available to them as they increase their skills. If they already have, or are willing to learn, the mindset necessary for helping the business improve, they will do very well.

2) Market to these young people that they can be part of a proud workforce building great products for customers—and then help them succeed. For example, in the interviewing process take the time to get real insight into an applicant's thinking. Ask "Are you willing to take additional training to upgrade skills? Do you take initiative to identify and solve problems? Are you a team player? As an hourly employee in a support role, do you have interest and ambition to become a machine operator—a very responsible and important hourly job that may pay in a range of $25 to $50 per hour? Do you aspire to someday be a supervisor or a quality technician?" Manufacturing jobs are more available now than they’ve been in a long time. Our mission as leaders and recruiters is to attract these folks and encourage them to “go for it” then support them when they sign on.

3) Aggressively recruit necessary technical skills with local tech schools and junior colleges. Many millennials who aren’t interested in a four-year degree have grown up with modern technology, are comfortable working with it and likely can be trained to do jobs such as programming of CNC machines, becoming an expert electronic technician, quality technician, tool and die maker, etc.

4) Visit local schools and tell the story of manufacturing as a career path for students just like them. Promote expanded use of Junior Achievement programs that are offered in elementary, middle and high schools. Attend every jobs fair in your area and tell your story. It’s all about marketing isn’t it? What is your value proposition to attract new talent into manufacturing?

5) Plan resources for an in-house education and training resource(s) where high numbers of people will require the same training (Lean 101, green belt certification, being a good teammate, etc.) for years to come. This is a long-term process to sustain training needs, but the plan needs to be done now with implementation to commence in the short-term.

6) The local plant and HR managers, along with the school board, chamber of commerce, local and regional government should join forces to create a strategy that supports programs that promote manufacturing careers. Plant managers, take the lead! Educate these important community leaders.

7) At a more macro level, it’s high time that senior manufacturing leaders increase their presence to market their companies as great places to work. (Of course, make sure this is a fact, not smoke.) For example, they should be proudly taking credit for: the sea change in safety results over the last two decades; working to change factory cultures to be much more inclusive and collaborative with all employees (hourly folks no longer have to check their brains at the time clock and pick them up when they leave); marked improvements in customer service; increasing use of state-of-the-art technology; jobs that pay great wages and benefits, etc. The only company that immediately comes to mind for promoting manufacturing on major media is GE. What I’ve seen is targeted specifically to engineering graduates, and it’s fair to say that companies do a far better job in recruiting for salaried positions. I went through several Google screens trying to find other companies promoting manufacturing in a broader way and gave up.

8) What about social media? Nearly everyone these days is on some kind of social media and checks it regularly. Has anyone ever seen on any form of social media (Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter) a “recruiting/selling” ad that advocates working in manufacturing? CEOs, senior marketing and HR leaders of manufacturing companies need a plan and a broad-based strategy to be highly visible on select media so the world knows: “We have great employment opportunities at ACME Manufacturing, Inc.”

9) Add your own thoughts here.

Most companies do a great job of marketing their companies to customers and shareholders but do very little, if any, marketing to prospective employees looking for opportunities. There should be a compelling story for both degreed and non-degreed people. Sell the positive changes like the present day working conditions, culture and opportunity for those seeking a fulfilling career and providing a better life for their families. I see this as a huge opportunity but, as a group, we’ve been nearly invisible on this topic and that needs to change. Who in your company has the ball on this?

Longer term:

10) Establish apprenticeship programs, college tuition assistance, campus recruiting. Form partnerships and develop the relationships to the point where you are “placing orders” for future graduates year after year.

11) Manufacturing organizations, corporations, small businesses: Develop ongoing updates of progress in the factories and speak with a loud voice about clean, safe, working conditions, better wages and benefits. If we don’t sell this, then who will? Making product that has great value is gratifying work. Growth opportunities for those who have the ambition, interest and wherewithal to work with evolving technologies provides upside for the best people. Make the career-long commitment and bake this in as a continuous process in your company.

12) Here’s a start on a list of organizations that I’d like to see become much more visible and vocal on a national level, such as manufacturing recruiting commercials on the nightly news. Apply the same thinking to your local radio/TV stations, advertising in local media, etc. Remember, we need to be selling mindset, perception changes and well-paying opportunities.

National Association of Manufacturers:

Junior Achievement:

Association of Manufacturing Excellence:

13) We need to help public school systems recognize the importance of making their student body aware of manufacturing as a career. Invite local manufacturing business leaders into the classrooms starting in grade 4 or so. (See Junior Achievement above.) Field trips to parks, botanical gardens, and zoos are important and a normal part of education at most schools. Why not make one of those annual field trips to a factory? Give students exposure to jobs for which they might aspire. For example, arrange for students to take a tour of a successful factory in the school district. In addition to the jobs on the shop floor, show them the people working in various office capacities such as human resources, accounting, purchasing, logistics and distribution, quality, maintenance, facility engineering. A few lightbulbs likely will turn on, or at least the experience may create a more open mind to the possibility of working in manufacturing.

14) Add your own thoughts here.

Bottom line: No need to wring our hands and be frustrated about why it’s so hard to fill manufacturing jobs. Instead, let’s attack this problem with the same vigor that we would major customer or cost issues in the shop. It’s a paradigm smash to be sure, but let’s apply what we’ve learned. We all smashed long-standing paradigms and started our continuous journeys on the shop floor. Each company needs a strategy and an execution plan. Nothing new here. Just a new topic for applying good process.

“Better late than never.” -- Geoffery Chaucer, circa 1386

“Someday", you said you'd do it yesterday; Yesterday, you said you'll do it today. Today, if you push it to tomorrow, it's likely tomorrow, you'll shift it to "Someday"! Do it now!” -- Israelmore Ayivor, Daily Drive 365

“There is no time like the present...”  -- Georgia Byng

“Just DO it” -- Long-running NIKE Ad

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd. Edition.

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