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Gen Z Is the Answer to the Skills Gap— They Just Don’t Know It Yet

Having witnessed the student-loan crisis, this generation may be more open to educational paths other than four-year college.

With their unique characteristics and career outlook, the Gen Z workforce can help solve the manufacturing skills gap. But lack of awareness and misperceptions about the industry are holding them back. That all adds up to a big opportunity for manufacturers to change their outreach, hiring and benefit strategies to connect with this generation of potential workers.

Having witnessed the massive debt and competitive job market many millennials faced upon graduation, Gen Z is determined to make practical educational decisions with an emphasis on financial stability. For many of them, a four-year college degree is only necessary if it’s a requirement for their ultimate career goals. Instead, they’re considering alternative education options that require less time and money to set them on their future paths.

New-collar jobs, a term coined by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, provide that balance of job security and little up-front investment. These jobs require the technical and soft skills that are valuable in today’s economy, but don’t require a four-year degree. Instead, new-collar workers are trained through technical colleges, vocational schools, certification programs or even on-the-job instruction.

New-collar jobs are especially prevalent in the manufacturing industry, which has evolved dramatically with advances in technology. Today’s manufacturers need employees with digital skills in automation, software, robotics, analytics, cloud computing and 3D printing. As digital natives, Gen Z’s experience with tech means they can easily adapt and adopt the skills needed to work with these new technologies.

The lack of awareness around manufacturing

Despite this seemingly perfect fit, most members of Gen Z haven’t considered careers in manufacturing. This is due in large part to a lack of awareness around the number of available manufacturing jobs and the variety of roles, as well as the misperceptions associated with the industry.

Many Gen Z’ers simply don’t know much about the manufacturing industry. Manufacturing careers are rarely included in high school curriculums. And parents likely aren’t talking to their kids about the industry either, as many believe manufacturing is outdated, low-paying or unchallenging. Similarly, Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple and Tesla are perceived as more tech-savvy — even though new innovations like IoT and advanced robotics are also transforming the manufacturing industry. By the time many members of Gen Z learn about the career possibilities in manufacturing (if they ever do), they’ve already chosen another path.

What manufacturers can do

Employers can take several steps to help create awareness, change misperceptions and encourage Gen Z to get excited about their industry.

  • Public outreach and partnerships: Reach out to Gen Z where they already are — get in touch with local high schools, community colleges, vocational programs and other nearby services. Establish collaborative programs aimed at creating a talent pipeline that will benefit the entire community. Internships and apprenticeships provide Gen Z’ers the opportunity to gain the active, hands-on and immersive learning experiences they crave, while allowing businesses the chance to test-run future candidates.
  • Financial and career growth incentives: Give Gen Z what they want: a clear path to financial and career growth. Aside from partnerships with local educational institutions, create your own in-house learning and development programs. Cover the costs of training and certification in exchange for job contracts with minimum durations. Consider a scholarship program to pay for the offsite training of promising candidates. Additionally, offer cross-training and create paths for employees to transfer and grow within your organization.
  • On-the-job perks: Make your company a great place to work. This may sound obvious, but keep in mind that Gen Z has different preferences than older generations. While Gen Z’ers appreciate traditional benefits like healthcare and 401(k) matches, they're also inclined to seek out flexible perks, like remote work opportunities for office employees or factories that have transitioned to a four-day work week.
  • Government programs: Contact your local representatives about changing school curriculum, providing community resources or creating a public awareness campaign. Your state workforce development board can help you coordinate training programs, which may be eligible for funding through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

Skilled workers are out there — manufacturers just need to adapt their searches. A change in perspective around job requirements combined with awareness and training initiatives will widen the talent pool and welcome the next generation of new-collar workers.

Alan Mindlin is a technical manager at Morey, focusing on new business development and new customer acquisition. Alan has nearly 40 years of engineering expertise, having worked with Bell Laboratories in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and as a consultant for startups. He is the vice chair of the DuPage County Workforce Innovation Board; the board explores how to get people into the workforce and funds programs that help them to succeed.

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