How Manufacturing Can Attract Young Talent Again

by

ERP Analyst, Software Advice

When I was a kid, I went back and forth between wanting to become a Marine or a doctor. Although on my more adventurous days, I was set to become a rock star or professional wrestler like the ones on TV (I thought they were real). Clearly, my career aspirations were all over the place – but what never even crossed my mind was becoming a manufacturer. After nearly a year of covering the manufacturing software market for Software Advice, I’ve started to wonder why.

In my view, it seems like the twenty-something and younger crowd would sooner build farms on Zynga’s Farmville or plan the next great civilization on Sim City rather than actually make it happen. This doesn’t speak to everyone in my age group, but I certainly don’t have many peers dying to break into the manufacturing industry. We’re a generation that’s obsessed with being cool, and honestly manufacturing doesn’t seem very cool.

There is a caveat, of course, in that the manufacturing of ideas is still highly valued. Everyone is racing to make the next iPhone app or create the next online money mill like GroupOn. But these ideas aren’t really producing a product in the traditional sense. Instead they’re manufacturing a smart service.

It got me thinking – can we make manufacturing cool again? That is, what will it take to make young people seriously consider a career in manufacturing? I believe in order to make manufacturing an appealing career again we’ll need to:

  • Wash away the negative media images of manufacturing;
  • Alter the perception that manufacturing is dead in the United States; and,
  • Re-connect the youth with making things, on their terms.

Manufacturing is still an important economic driver and it can help us turn this recession around. To accomplish this, however, we’ll need more young people go into the business of producing products. Before we explore what’s needed to attract young talent to manufacturing, let’s look at a few things keeping young people from a manufacturing career in the first place.

Manufacturing Has Fallen From Grace

Manufacturing was once revered as a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle. Today, however, it seems like it’s viewed as a dirty job that doesn’t pay very well. Statistics show that although we value the role of manufacturing in our society, few think it’s the right career for them. According to an Area Development report on the 2009 Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing survey, 70 percent of respondents view manufacturing as a top priority for a strong national economy. Tellingly, however, only 17 percent of surveyed participants listed working in manufacturing in their top two career choices.

This is surprising given that the average income for a manufacturing worker is $74,447 – more than $10,000 higher than the national average for non-manufacturing workers. While outsourcing has likely taken a toll on whether young people consider a manufacturing career, I think there are several other factors at play. Here are a few things that I think make matters worse.

Few role models are involved in manufacturing. I can’t think of a single popular role model that’s a manufacturer. Most of the role models we see on television and in movies are doctors, lawyers, cops or simply uber-cool tweens. In real life, we seem to admire CEOs of powerful corporations like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Richard Branson. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be like these people, but the lack of well-respected manufacturing figures in our society has a negative impact on our national consciousness. This is a stark contrast to the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter and the mass appeal of images of tough, hard-working factory men that circulated in the heyday of manufacturing.

Media stories have pummeled manufacturing. The mainstream media has run an incredible volume of stories about shuttered plants and jobs shipped overseas. If you believe all the hyperbolic language, manufacturing is either dead or dying in this country. To be fair, the last couple of decades haven’t been pretty (understatement) for the industry. But many don’t realize that we’re still the world’s leading manufacturer and account for 21 percent of worldwide production. Furthermore, manufacturing is leading the progress we’ve made toward an economic recovery.

Students have lost their connection to building things. A final issue I see at play is the fact that technical curriculum has dropped off the map. As Marc Epstein notes in a great op-ed piece in The Washington Post, the value of manual education in our public schools has been undermined. Manual education once enjoyed a prestigious place in our society. Now it’s viewed as something that’s primarily for students without college prospects. In a consumer-based society that’s already far removed from how things are produced, removing manual education only widens the gap.

Why Should We Care About Pursuing Manufacturing Careers?

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of manufacturing to a healthy economy. It’s a great engine of economic growth and has ripple effects in the job market. For instance, each dollar produced in the manufacturing industry adds an additional $1.43 to the overall economy. The same can’t said about services, which adds only $0.70 to the economy for each dollar. Pat Lee of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association summed it nicely:

There are only three ways that a country builds wealth – you make things, you mine things and you grow things. Everything else is ancillary to that. Manufacturing has the best record for add-on jobs. For every job that is created in manufacturing, there are multiple add-on jobs that are created as a result.” – Pat Lee, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association

Beyond the economic effects of manufacturing, the industry is also a great source of innovation. Investments made by the manufacturing industry collectively accounts for two-thirds of our all research and development investments. This ultimately improves both manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors.

If we think the economy is bad now, things would be much worse if the bottom fell out of manufacturing. We simply cannot afford for this to happen, and we should fight to avoid it. In order to prevent manufacturing from slipping further as a skills gap looms and the Baby Boomer generation retires – we need the younger generation to think building stuff is cool again.

How to Make Manufacturing Cool Again

We need a strategic shift in our culture. And that requires completely changing young people’s perceptions about the value of manufacturing – and the career opportunities in the industry. This means reacquainting youth with the process of designing and building products from an early age – and then providing the creative freedom to build those things on their terms. I’d like to share two examples I’ve come across in the industry and suggest a third of my own.

  1. Manufacturing summer camps – A recent New York Times article highlighted an innovative summer camp, called Gadget Camp, where teenagers learn how to build things from concept to creation. Attendees are required to design a product through computer-aided design (CAD) technology and oversee the design to completion. It’s a fun environment where kids are simultaneously exposed to manufacturing and project management, as well as how to build something. According to Lee, whose organization partially funds Gadget Camp, the camps have anywhere from 12 to 20 students. But these efforts need to be scaled up and out across the nation.
  2. Gamification of manufacturing – Gamification is a hot topic in many aspects of business at the moment – one driven by the idea that adding gaming elements to non-gaming activities encourages action and participation. It's a movement that seeks to capitalize on our youth’s obsession with video games as well as our competitive nature. According to Diana Miller and Simon Jacobson’s recent Gartner First Thing Monday Morning newsletter, Invensys has been using 3D gaming technology to teach new hires how to operate oil refinery equipment for the past few years. In the same vein, Siemens recently released Plantville, a program designed to teach manufacturing processes and technologies to young people and new hires. I haven’t played it yet but it’s apparently similar to Farmville – without the productivity loss.
  3. Restore shop classes to our high schools – The elimination of these courses from our school systems has inevitably had a negative impact on the way we view making a living with our hands. We can all learn from building something with our hands because it teaches us a different way to think. And more importantly, hands-on learning through shop classes helps young people move an idea from concept to creation – which is useful regardless of one’s future occupation. Personally, I missed out on any kind of manual education and instead focused intensely on research and writing as a student, which prepared me for my current job. But had I been exposed to different skill sets, I may have at least considered working in manufacturing – or realized it was an even option.

A Final Thought on Creating this Shift

Creating this cultural shift won’t come easily and it won’t solve other systemic problems confronting the manufacturing industry. However, it’s clear that unless we change the perception of manufacturing, the skills gap will only worsen and manufacturing will continue to decline.

It may seem a little strange for a 23 year old to write about why the youth should join manufacturing without being a part of it himself. In my opinion, however, this drives the point home. I could have been an asset to the manufacturing industry had I been exposed to other types of learning and given the opportunity to explore manufacturing careers earlier on.

Instead I was told that I needed to learn how to write, solve math problems and get good grades so I could go to college and avoid making a living with my hands. Because of this, I invested a lot of my own money to put myself through college and started down that career path. In truth, these are the same skills that are needed to be a part of modern manufacturing – and it’s time for Gen Y, and the next Gen, to take manufacturing seriously.

What do you think it will take to overcome the cultural barrier facing manufacturing? Leave me a comment below.

Thumbnail image created by Saad.Akhtar.

 
  • http://twitter.com/laystrom laystrom

    Interesting piece Derek – it is great to see that the perception of what manufacturing is, should be, and can be, is changing as manufacturing leads the US out of the recession. Employment is growing in manufacturing!
    Colin Cosgrove <–17 years in manufacturing
    Sales Manager, Laystrom Manufacturing Co.

  • Hal T

    Nice job Derek. If the US really begins the process of ramping up the manufacturing segment it may require us to import workers from other countries due to the lack of skilled labor here. I caught a news report (on FOX I believe) which pointed out the lack of available indigenous “high tech” manufacturing labor. Companies seeking graduates from technical schools had to stand in line with job offerings outnumbering graduates at nearly a ten-to-one ratio. 

  • Tim Fara

    Derek, this article is absolutely amazing. I have been talking to many people in the Northern Illinois area about the same issue. As I was reading your article it was like the words coming from my own mouth. I have been speaking to grade school administrators, high school superitenents, college directors and collede professors for the past year. As a General Manager for Mazak Midwest, large machine tool manufacturer, we have held student days five times over the past year and averaged over 130 students per event. These students get it, the see the possibilities for them. They say ” if I can operate a computer, I can learn to operate a CNC machine” all we need to do is connect the dots and create a pathway for these young adults to proudly take the steps toward the proper education, training, and job opportunities that exist today. High school, community college, vocational or technical schools, and even four year degrees programs. Create a path, give them an opportunity, and they will follow it. Oh yes, let’s no forget about the 28 – 40 year olds that need to re-career themselves because they cannot find that job in the career path they chose 5-10 years ago. With over 277,000 skilled manufacturing jobs unfilled today, we need to act today. Great article. I will definitely pass it on. I hope to me you face to face some day soon.

  • John

    Derek,
    I think you are two years behind the curve. College is out of the question for most students now. The college education is not worth the cost in most cases. 
    New production equipment is set up like a video game,high school students adapt to the new machinery much better than older workers. Robotics replace the tedious jobs.
    If more high school students were advised to visit good manufacturers, your concern would be a moot point.

  • Gabby

    Derek, I echo most of the comments posted here. This is an issue that continues to be ignored in the flux of the stock market, job creation, and health care. I have recently started working for a manufacturing company and I too wonder where my shop class was in high school or why I never heard of manufacturing through my educational career. I will definitely be passing this article on!

  • Don

    Derek,
      The same causes and solutions can be applied to the skilled trades.  The trades taught in tech schools to today do not apply to industrial skilled trades…. automation tech., Forklift tech., instrumentation tech. etc.
    Young people need to learn the satisfaction in putting things together and making them work.   Toys such as Tinker Toys, Errector Sets, lincoln logs etc. are not available today at reasonable prices.  Wi, Nintendo etc are cheaper. 
       The young parents today never had skill building toys or had Industrial Arts.  Now called shop class. The girls used to take homemaking.  That is why so many young families eat prepared meals and fast foods.  Cooking a family dinner means making Hamburger Helper meals. 
      The school accedemic programs will have to be changed to make a complete economic recovery.  Unfortunatly we are running out of time.
    Convince elementary schools to hold carrer days, where  speakers can promote skills needed in manufacturing and skilled trades.  What happened to teaching young students to fabricate stuff.  Maybe a rube goldburg machine to empty a box of marbles.  Using at least 5 actions.
      A lot of retired (voluntary and unvoluntary) trades people would like to pass on some of their skills to the young.  However there are not enough willing young around.   I learned the most durring my first 5 years in the trades from the older experienced mechanics.  When I looked around to teach a young replacement,  there was no one there.  Very discouraging, very disheartening.  Show me a  young skull of mush willing to learn and I will teach him to be a skilled technician. 
      Any ideas where to teach at without a “teaching degree”?

  • Cat

    Derek,
    I, too, write about manufacturing software and have been surprised at the whole world of interesting work going on in manufacturing. But I have to ask: If there is so much great skilled work out there, why aren’t manufacturers taking on the responsibility to train new workers? 

  • Michael

    Derek,

    As the blogger at http://www.ProudlyMadeInAmerica.com I write about many issues concerning manufacturing in the United States.  I agree that we need to “make manufacturing cool again”, as you point out.  

    Our society has to move past the belief that you have to be a “knowledge worker” to be successful.  There is too much hype about having an innovation economy with knowledge workers.  Turning the tide on public opinion is a long road, but it has to start somewhere.  

    I look forward to reading more of you posts.

    -Michael

  • Skeptical

    Your ideas are nice but niave.  The way to get people interested in manufacturing again is to actually have prospects for a career in manufacturing.  American companies keep outsourcing manufacturing jobs to other countries.  My company, in one division alone, has moved over 2000 US manufacturing jobs to other countries in the past 10 years.  There’s no way I would encourage my kids to get involved in such a dead end career.

    Do a search:  one link I found showed that in 1950 34% of US jobs were in manufacturing – in 2002 it was 13%.

    You want people to be interested in manufacturing?  Build something in the US and post the jobs.  At least in my area you will be swamped with experienced people who want to fill them.

  • Vapats

    Bravo;  very thoughtful article, Derek!  One of the ironies for “a generation that’s obsessed with being cool” is that the cool gadgets that are the props for their cool lifestyle were /manufactured/ by someone.

    Outsourcing is the biggest discouragement:  how can a kid get enthusiastic about a future in manufacturing, when it all seems to be going to China?  If the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were actually made in the USA, then we could make a cool documentary telling the cool story about making these cool products become a reality — but the offshoring kinda kills that notion…

    I’m in Design & Development — which is very cool — but you can bet that the biggest challenge is making the product manufacturable, so I am involved on the shop floor, too, where the rubber meets the road.

    I’ll be sure to get back to you, if any bright ideas occur to me on this issue.

    cheers,  – vic

  • Vapats

    Bravo;  very thoughtful article, Derek!  One of the ironies for “a generation that’s obsessed with being cool” is that the cool gadgets that are the props for their cool lifestyle were /manufactured/ by someone.

    Outsourcing is the biggest discouragement:  how can a kid get enthusiastic about a future in manufacturing, when it all seems to be going to China?  If the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were actually made in the USA, then we could make a cool documentary telling the cool story about making these cool products become a reality — but the offshoring kinda kills that notion…

    I’m in Design & Development — which is very cool — but you can bet that the biggest challenge is making the product manufacturable, so I am involved on the shop floor, too, where the rubber meets the road.

    I’ll be sure to get back to you, if any bright ideas occur to me on this issue.

    cheers,  – vic

  • Vapats

    Bravo;  very thoughtful article, Derek!  One of the ironies for “a generation that’s obsessed with being cool” is that the cool gadgets that are the props for their cool lifestyle were /manufactured/ by someone.

    Outsourcing is the biggest discouragement:  how can a kid get enthusiastic about a future in manufacturing, when it all seems to be going to China?  If the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were actually made in the USA, then we could make a cool documentary telling the cool story about making these cool products become a reality — but the offshoring kinda kills that notion…

    I’m in Design & Development — which is very cool — but you can bet that the biggest challenge is making the product manufacturable, so I am involved on the shop floor, too, where the rubber meets the road.

    I’ll be sure to get back to you, if any bright ideas occur to me on this issue.

    cheers,  – vic

  • Vapats

    Bravo;  very thoughtful article, Derek!  One of the ironies for “a generation that’s obsessed with being cool” is that the cool gadgets that are the props for their cool lifestyle were /manufactured/ by someone.

    Outsourcing is the biggest discouragement:  how can a kid get enthusiastic about a future in manufacturing, when it all seems to be going to China?  If the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were actually made in the USA, then we could make a cool documentary telling the cool story about making these cool products become a reality — but the offshoring kinda kills that notion…

    I’m in Design & Development — which is very cool — but you can bet that the biggest challenge is making the product manufacturable, so I am involved on the shop floor, too, where the rubber meets the road.

    I’ll be sure to get back to you, if any bright ideas occur to me on this issue.

    cheers,  – vic

  • David

    The problem that manufacturing is uncool is nothing new; it has never been cool. The problem that young people want to be cool is nothing new, either.

    Let’s forget about the paucity of manufacturing jobs, here, which is partly the result of Americans having such a low opinion of these jobs that they require higher salaries than people in other countries. By making these jobs more attractive at lower pay, job scarcity will be at least partially addressed, using ideas like those in this piece.

    The new problem is that Gen Y people seem to have an exceptionally strong coolness jones combined with an exceptionally strong sense of entitlement that includes an absolute right to a cool lifestyle. To many, unemployment is preferable to uncoolness. For many, the coolest thing seems to be making money by doing nothing at all, just buying and selling financial instruments and adding zero value to the world.

    Demonstrating that manufacturing can be interesting and fulfilling is a great idea. Explaining how the world falls apart when too many people are slacking might be a bit harder. Getting people to accept that not everything in a person’s life has to be cool, but personally these people can still be cool might be impossible, but there must be a way. Let’s get it done.

  • Mike 1

    Great article Derek…I’d like to add 2 ideas or concepts that may help the motivation of Gen Y aged men and women to re consider manufacturing.

    A. That manufacturing facilities need to provide a more pleasant and human friendly enviroment. I’ve never seen a movie or a TV show that does not portray a factory as an ugly, dirty “blue collar” place to work. So I’m not surprsied that Gen Y’ers are not attracted to manufacturing. With the exception of some industries a factory can be made to look like a Starbuck’s compared to a greasy spoon coffee shop. Inside and out. Image/perception  is reality…..just like a retail store owner knows….if you want people to come into your store you better have an attractive window display and a well layed out store.

    B. Today, many factories have very advanced IT systems and other technologies in place to help run the factory. The traditional machine “operator” is transforming to a machine “manager”. Brain power is starting to take over muscle power.

    Close to where I live a 200 suite condo building is being constructed, I was  amazed to see the “construction workers” arrived in….one would think of denim overall clad workers driving Dodge Ram trucks….the complete opposite…they arrive in BMW’s, Lexus’s and other luxury brands. Wearing almost business casual clothes. With the exception of hard hats and boots – safety regulations. Why? Because very few of them actually do any physical work…it’s all machines…many of which are controlled with remote control devices. I was amazed to see a 20 something “worker” controlling a mini bull dozer with what looked like a TV remote.

    In a nutshell…manufacturing can return to America.What Manufacturers need is a massive PR campaign and sell the concept of “factories of the Future”.

     

  • Tom DeRossett

    This question was posed at an Global Aerospace Growth
    Forum in Dallas a couple of weeks ago by representatives of engineering
    departments of local colleges in regard to the aerospace, aviation and defense
    industries, reflecting the lack of “Coolness” of our industry. Going
    to the moon, supersonic flight, stealth fighters, UAVs and space stations are
    not enticing to our best and brightest.

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