PharmaView: Can Manufacturing Be Sexy for Millennials?

If not, maybe greed can help overcome manufacturing’s PR problem with young professionals.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

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Unemployment remains high in the U.S. and other countries, and yet manufacturers struggle to find the skilled workers they need. It’s a maddening paradox.

There’s a clear skills gap out there. Young people especially—“millennials”—aren’t gravitating towards manufacturing careers and don’t see the work as sexy.

“Manufacturing has a PR problem with young people,” said John Nesi, VP of Market Development for Rockwell Automation, speaking recently during a panel discussion at his company’s annual Automation Fair. Millennials don’t have an appreciation for the high-tech nature and diversity of careers in manufacturing today, he said.

It’s not just in the U.S., said another panelist, Tom Duesterberg, a manufacturing expert at The Aspen Institute. “In both India and China, the quality of engineers and those going into jobs as line workers and so on is not adequate. In the U.S., we’re not training enough scientists and engineers. We are going to have to focus on immigration as one solution. But also, basic literacy and numeracy skills and the basic ability to be trained are missing.”

“Skill is a combination of education and experience,” said Mary Isbister, president of the metal fabrication firm GenMet. Most younger workers she sees “don’t have experience, and they don’t have basic math and science, and even the basic work-readiness skills of arriving to work on time!”

Irving McPhail, President of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, bemoaned the “Engineering Awareness Conundrum.” “There are just not enough young people aware of the excitement in STEM careers,” he said. “Not a lot of young people know people in their lives who work in these fields. And we need K-12 educators who can impart enthusiasm in these fields.”

The end result, said McPhail: “We are not producing the number of engineers required to give the U.S. the ability to participate in the flat, global world.”

Duesterberg said that the U.S. must, as Germany and Japan have, place more emphasis on technical colleges and technical tracks in high schools, with support from government and industry. (North Carolina got this message long ago, and some other states and regions are catching on as well.)

But two things stand in the way, Duesterberg said. First, the U.S. as a society places an inordinate emphasis on the “entrepreneurial” rather than the “industrial.” (Are they mutually exclusive?)

And, despite evidence to the contrary, many of our most influential thought leaders say “the future of our economy is in the service sector.” As Duesterberg and others have pointed out, successful economies need diversity—and that includes a healthy manufacturing sector.

It was an enlightening panel discussion. But making manufacturing sexy is an uphill climb.

A better approach would be to tap into a trait that all of us, millennials included, have in spades: greed.

If sexy just won’t work, maybe greedy will. In the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) report on the best paying jobs for 2011 college graduates, engineering dominated the list. Here are the first 10:

1.    Chemical engineering ($66,886)
2.    Computer science ($63,017)
3.    Mechanical engineering ($60,739)
4.    Electrical/electronics and communications engineering ($60,646)
5.    Computer engineering ($60,112)
6.    Industrial/manufacturing engineering ($58,549)
7.    Systems engineering ($57,497)
8.    Engineering technology ($57,176)
9.    Information sciences & systems ($56,868)
10.    Business systems networking/ telecommunications ($56,808)

These jobs top even those in finance, accounting, and human resources. The good salaries, of course, have something to do with the fact that there are not a lot of qualified candidates out there. But one would think that a starting salary of $60K and a wealth of open job positions would be enough to raise the eyebrows of even the most dour and discriminating millennials.

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