Manufacturing and related industries need to attract Gen Z and others

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when it comes to talking about the skills gap in manufacturing. Even when a ray of light comes through, it seems to shine a light on the darkness that was the last 40 years in manufacturing.

A great example of that is an article I saw that wondered if the youngest adults in the United States could save manufacturing from the “Silver Tsunami.” With the Baby Boomers getting ready to retire out of the workforce, the fear is there will be a tidal wave of people washed away from traditional jobs, such as manufacturing and other skilled-labor industries, with nobody left to fill their roles.

While the article offers a ray of hope, it also shines a light on the most depressing aspect of the past few generations: When you tell students skilled labor jobs and industries are “loser jobs” and your career salvation can be found only behind a desk from 9 to 5, they actually listen and stay away.

Let’s dive deeper into “Can Gen Z Save Manufacturing from the ‘Silver Tsunami’?” from IndustryWeek, and see how manufacturing technology also may be the savior of the industry.

Unpacking misconceptions from the lost generations of manufacturing

It’s hard to believe it’s been three and a half years since I first began writing about this subject. Back then, manufacturing was clinging to life mostly due to the economy but also because of a lack of skilled talent. Now that the economy has rebounded, the lack of skilled labor is causing even more of a headache.

Mike Rowe, famed TV host and champion of skilled-labor professions, has been harping on this catastrophe for the past five years. We’ve gotten to this point because we’ve been telling our children they¬†must attend a four-year university, or they would “end up in a bad job” in a skilled-trade industry.

Gen Z Manufacturing

With Gen Z showing more of an interest in manufacturing than Millennials, can they save the industry from a ‘Silver Tsunami’?

If you think this is all hyperbole, the proof of the pudding is in the statistics. According to the 2019 Learning2Lean Manufacturing Index, a third of Gen Z (adults ages 18-22) have had manufacturing suggested to them as a career option. If you think that’s bad, Only 18 percent of Millennials (adults ages 23-38) said they had manufacturing suggested to them. And, only 13 percent of the total adult population said the same.

In a couple of generations, we’ve turned occupations in construction, manufacturing, and other highly skilled industries from some of the most well respected jobs into the most detestable excuses for employment. And it’s not just the skilled-labor job market that’s hurting in these industries.

If teachers and guidance counselors were telling their students for the past 40 years that “manufacturing is a dead-end career,” what do you think kids interested in technology fields are going to think? “I don’t care if there are stable, well-paying jobs for technology in manufacturing — I don’t want a loser job!”

To most adults, that sounds like a silly non-sequitur. But when you’re 16 years old and you have concerns of the prospects of having a “cool” job, the worst thing you can tell a teenager is a viable career path is for “losers.” If a student has a knack for coding, telling them computer gaming is “cool” and coding BI reports for a manufacturer is “lame,” what do you think they’re going to choose every time? This especially rings true since one of those jobs is harder to get into and the other is desperate for people to fill positions.

No matter how you slice it, perception is reality. According to the IndustryWeek article, the latest government data shows there are more than a half million open manufacturing jobs in the United States. A Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute projects 2.4 million manufacturing jobs won’t be filled over the next 10 years. While the L2L study shows 54 percent of Gen Z realize there is a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers in the country, it also shows six out of 10 positions won’t be filled in part because of false industry perceptions.

This may be the most jaw-dropping — and the most depressing — false perception the L2L study uncovered: While more than half of the country assumes a manufacturing manager’s salary is less than $60,000 per year, the average salary was nearly double that amount in 2018.

So how do we translate these facts into reality for the potential manufacturing workforce? To overcome the negative perception, manufacturers have to take the truth to their potential workforce.

Manufacturers need to go to where their workforce is

For the past few years, we at Practical Software Solutions have been going to more and more college job fairs around North Carolina to attract more young talent to our development and implementation staff. During that time, we’ve gone from everyone being around my age (45) or older, to having nine Gen Xers and one Millennial in the building.

While one could say we’re a technology company and not a manufacturing company, you definitely could make the argument we’re a manufacturing-related industry. Those 10 employees are working with manufacturers and helping them to implement their software systems and learning their operations to help make their system work for their individual businesses.

As soon as we took it upon ourselves to go to where the prospects were, we were more successful in getting them in the door. In the past few months, I’ve talked about both colleges and manufacturing organizations pooling resources to bring more students into the fold. In South Carolina, the community college system is working with automotive plants in the state to help get entry-level positions filled. In Detroit, textile manufacturing associations are working to train people to recover from the motor industry leaving to places like South Carolina.

But individual manufacturing companies don’t have to wait for an association or a college to help drive potential employees their way. Just like Practical started going to job fairs, manufacturers can do the same. They can show high school and college-age students what types of technology is being used in manufacturing. They can show that a love of math can be used for business accounting if they’re not into engineering.

Even further down the line, individual people at manufacturing companies can participate in events on their own. Even though children can’t be allowed on a shop floor, Take Your Child to Work days can provide a wider view of all the different types of jobs that are available at a plant. Then there’s the Great American Teach-In, which started with the Hillsborough County, Florida, school district, which invites members of the community to area schools to “teach” students what their careers are like.

No longer can the manufacturing industry, or related industries, rely on the word getting out about them through guidance counselors or teachers. They must take it upon themselves to share the good news about manufacturing, the potential for great earnings, and the potential for a great and rewarding career.

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