Appealing to the next generation of manufacturing workers

Manufacturers need to evolve to appeal to the millennial generation and help fill the skills gap and take advantage of the unique talents that they offer.

By Keith Barr September 22, 2016

A recent survey inquired about the shortage of a "skilled workforce" in manufacturing. Though the survey’s basic premise, which addressed training and recruiting, is valid, I believe the survey questions missed a major component.

The issue regarding the manufacturing workforce isn’t education, training, or better incentives—it’s people. The real issue is that a whole generation of workers has a desire to be part of this new, dynamic and complex workplace that looks very different from the factory environment of former generations.

We all hear concerns about the state of manufacturing in the U.S., but most people don’t realize that some 2 million domestic manufacturing jobs are estimated to remain vacant by 2025 due to a lack of "skilled" applicants, according to a 2015 Manufacturing Institute report. While this may be a surprising statistic, I believe it, having personally witnessed and heard concerns about the retiring workforce.

However, after many debates and discussions, I feel we are still missing the point. The problem isn’t a lack of recruiting, training or incentive plans, but rather, "Who will come?"

The prior generations of factory workers were the "get it done" workforce. The work culture required everyone to perform the same way with limited interruptions. Uniformity and conformity got the job done. This adage still holds fast within too many minds past and present. So the question remains: if this mentality is pervasive throughout manufacturing, "Who will come?"

I’m rather new to the industry—only five years in—but I have witnessed something distinctive within the environment of most plants, far more than my experience in other industries-the constant concern of replacing the retiring workforce to preserve the current way of life.

As the millennial workforce comes to us, we venture into new territories of societal evolution powered by emotionally driven career choices. Millennials are inundated with unfathomable opportunities through technology to advance their interpersonal communication, allowing them to socialize, network and interact in ways that enhance their lives. This has accelerated their sense and need to realize personal worth, and it is highly dependent on their interactions with others.

For work environments, millennials are looking for opportunities to innovate, improve and change more immediately. Millennials seek places where they feel significant and can be seen as an individual while still being part of the team and acknowledged for their value.

We need their minds, which are full of creative imagination and untethered by limitations. This is the right workforce, and we have one simple task: create the environment to attract them. Just as nature continues to evolve adapting and reworking its components, manufacturers need to evolve as well.

To do that, manufacturers should focus on these four aspects in particular to appeal to the millennial worker:

Immediacy. The millennial workforce wants things to happen or change right away. They have immediacy in so many ways in their life—from on-demand to instant analytics—so why can’t they have it at work, too? It’s going to feel like a letdown if they see a factory and discover that equipment, processes and data reporting aren’t up-to-date.

Meaning. More than previous generations, millennials want to know their work has meaning. They want to see in real-time how their contribution is making a difference to operations and expect visibility into their own performance. They are also inspired with stories on how your factory’s products are helping people, whether it be batteries that power rescue equipment or automotive airbags that save lives.

Technology. While we all now hold technology in our hands on a daily basis that allows us to communicate over the phone, take a picture or summon a product, this is all millennials know. It’s standard to them. The same should go for their work, they assume. By putting technology in their hands that gives them real-time information, they’ll be able to make decisions, solve problems and contribute in real-time. They want conditions where plant floor teams meet, solve problems, collaborate and decide—not in just meeting places, but within the processes and tasks.

Leadership. Millennials don’t necessarily just want to have fun at work—they want to see and experience good leadership and the opportunity to serve in increasingly bigger ways. Millennials also want to show leadership and earn opportunities to advance when they feel they’ve contributed instead of just "paying dues" of longtime service.

It is vital for companies to create a plant floor culture that encourages human input and interaction. By creating this plant floor culture, it sends a wave of hope and enthusiasm and implants a sense of pride, ownership and belonging that we all desire.

Utilizing technology and real-time data to increase transparency and visibility not only leads to this culture on the plant floor, it simultaneously will impact the bottom line-leaner operations, less downtime and higher production capacity.

The only way to make this profitable and sustainable culture happen is to build its environment. Together, through leadership and solutions, we can motivate these new skilled workers to become part of this faceted and dynamic industry. In fact, it’s required for manufacturing to survive and prosper. If you build it, millennials will come.

Keith Barr is President & CEO of Leading2Lean, a manufacturing tech solution provider. Leading2Lean is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media,

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Author Bio: Keith Barr, L2L