My 28-year-old son is a “digital native.” He was fortunate to have grown up with computers, the internet, the book of faces, smartphones, iPads, and instant/constant connectivity. He is also part of what will soon be the largest demographic in American society, millennials, born between 1981 and 1996. His generation expects things to be different from baby-boomer norms and that will dramatically affect manufacturing. He left his first job in the Department of Defense because his warfare specialty did not allow for the connectivity he enjoyed in college. Further, they did not take advantage of new technology and were hopelessly stuck in the 1980s.
I will admit that I am painting with a wide brush and generalizing a bit. However, like chaos theory, if one studies a situation with patience and diligence, patterns begin to emerge. I would like to share my observations of “millennials in the wild” during several ERP implementations at manufacturing firms, as well as thoughts on how the manufacturing industry needs to seize this opportunity to get Millennials on board.
Most Millennials view their first jobs as “starter jobs.” At age 28, my son has already had three different career paths—military, deputy chief of staff for a U.S. senator, and now a program manager for a municipal government. While he has spent most of his adult life in public service, he is a nuclear-trained engineer that is looking at the private sector now that he is a new father. He has not ruled out any private industry vertical but has not spoken well of manufacturing. Be that as it may, he is not locked into a specific path and is interested in any industry with higher wages, good benefits, and more stability.
I find this to be the case with a lot of the older Millennials. They are young parents that enjoyed the thrill of couch surfing, startups, and public service but are now looking to provide for young families. This is a golden opportunity for manufacturing firms.
Manufacturing in America has negative street cred. The negative view of manufacturing is undeserved, but there it is. Manufacturing has had a renaissance since the Rust Belt days of the 1970s; however, a negative perception of manufacturing prevails. An oft-quoted 2017 report from Deloitte has some grim observations:
...less than 5 in 10 Americans surveyed believe manufacturing jobs are interesting, rewarding, clean, safe, stable, and secure. Also, manufacturing is not the preferred industry to start a career today, with less than 3 in 10 Americans surveyed likely to encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.
Thus, the rub. Manufacturing is a critical industry requiring a skilled workforce. It is vital to the U.S. economy and has challenging and rewarding opportunities. It provides great wages, job security and potential for personal growth and advancement … yet it is not viewed as a preferred industry. At best, most millennials view manufacturing as a starter job, a three-year placeholder until they begin their real career. What can be done to stem the tide? Well, I am glad you asked.
1. Manufacturing pays - get the message out on social media. Manufacturing is not only a meaningful career with long-term stability (on average greater than 9 years), but it pays the third highest wages in private industry at an average wage of $85,600 (in 2017, according to a Linkedin study).
2. This is not your grandparent’s manufacturing job. Manufacturing in the U.S. must utilize cutting edge technologies like ERP, robotics, virtual reality, and AI to stay competitive. Yet, there is a perception that manufacturing jobs are grim affairs in dingy warehouses requiring soul-crushing repetitive, assembly-line processes. Nothing is further from the truth. The firms LTA has consulted with provide their employees with the cutting-edge tools to make their companies competitive in the global commons. They are using the latest software, hardware, technology, and ideas to bring their products to market. Couple high tech with meaningful work and you have a template for Millennials to soar to positions of greater responsibility with rewarding outcomes. That is a great recruiting pitch that has the side benefit of actually being true.
3. Train your replacement. At my current consulting project, senior baby-boomer managers and directors take promising young millennial minds and show them the ropes. They are making a personal and professional investment in the new generation and helping them hone their skills. These coaches (I find “mentor” to be an overused term) share their tribal knowledge and keen industry insights to the up -and-coming superstars. It is fantastic to watch both sides blossom in a symbiotic relationship. They are bringing millennials into the fold and teaching them soft and hard skills that will make them recession proof and employable at any number of manufacturing verticals. This is a message that should be all over social media and voiced by recruiters/HR. Manufacturing can be much more than a job or a career choice. If properly done, a manufacturing career can be a rewarding path filled with personal growth and well-earned confidence.
4. Create a positive work environment. Again, my current consulting project has a very non-traditional view of work. They offer a lot of flex time, allow for periodic sabbaticals, and reward superior performance with benefits other than wages. In short, they offer more than just medical and dental, they offer a team-oriented “family” environment that cherishes their labor force rather than grudgingly having the suits “deal” with workers.
Also, make sure your company is taking advantage of technology like AI, IoT, mobile devices and harnessing big data. Not only does this technology have the ability to help make a significant change in your business; it entices millennials.
Once you have addressed your internal factors, it is time for intentional communication: Intentional communication with the up-and-coming workforce on the truths of modern-day manufacturing: Wages are competitive, you get to use cutting edge technology, and there is stability in the industry as well as significant room for growth. Intentional communication between subject matter experts and digital natives on best practices and other tribal knowledge.
We are at a special point in time, where if nurtured properly, relationships between baby boomers and millennials can make a significant impact on individual companies and in the manufacturing industry. It’s time to take a look at your company as a whole and make sure you are making improvements to position yourself for long-term success as millennials continue in the workplace.
Rich Farrell is a senior consultant at Liberty Technology Advisors, an independent consulting firm based in the Chicagoland area. Over the years, Rich has had an extensive career consulting in the manufacturing industry. Rich was the director or program manager for several private-sector manufacturing, oil and gas, healthcare, retail and chemical company ERP implementations. Rich spent 26 years in the U.S. Navy and was a commanding cfficer, command at sea during peacetime and wartime operations.