Manufacturing and Millennials: Is Bad PR the Problem?

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

What to do? Can manufacturing be made sexy for young people? For older workers as well? This was the subject of a panel discussion today at the annual Rockwell Automation Fair in Chicago.

John Nesi, VP of Market Development for Rockwell Automation, moderated the discussion and led with the point that “manufacturing has a PR problem with young people.” Millennials don’t have an appreciation for the high-tech nature and diversity of careers in manufacturing today, he said. What can be done? The following are snippets from some of the panelists:

Tom Duesterberg, The Aspen Institute: We have an aging workforce, in the developed and developing world . . . so we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we’re in a world where we have an aging workforce and we’re going to have to be recruiting from older workers, and less skilled and less-well-prepared workers.

It’s not just in the U.S. 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.

Mary Isbister, President, GenMet: Skill is a combination of education of experience. What we’re finding is that in our workforce today, most workers come without the work-readiness skills on day one. They 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! It’s an issue especially with our younger workforce.

[Regarding incumbent workers], trying to bring them into our facilities is also a challenge. A lot of them don’t have the skills to manage highly automated equipment. They haven’t been asked to do a lot of decision-making in the past. They weren’t working on teams in their previous jobs . . . It’s a challenge to make them truly ready and able to work in our facilities today.

Irving McPhail, President, National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME): There is another demographic reality we need to pay a great deal of attention to. Students and young people are not participating in the STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Math] categories. We are not producing the number of engineers required to give the U.S. the ability to participate in the flat, global world . . . This is especially true of minorities and women . . .We need to get more people in manufacturing who represent the new demographic reality in the U.S.

Nesi: Why is recruiting people into STEM a hurdle? Is there a stigma?

McPhail: That certainly is an issue, but larger than that is what we refer to as the “Engineering Awareness Conundrum.” There are just not enough young people aware of the excitement in STEM careers. 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.

Isbister: Kids these days who are sitting in a classroom watching a teacher at a smartboard don’t appreciate math and science as they would in an applied setting . . . there are programs where kids are doing math on the shop floor and they’re excited about it. . . . One of the hurdles we have to get over is, how do we introduce applied learning models in the schools these days?

McPhail: I agree . . . math and science need to be contextualized . . . kids go wild for this kind of stuff.

Isbister: Industry needs to be at the table with the educational institution helping to drive the relevance of the educational program.

Duesterberg: People often talk about the German model, and we can’t lock, stock, and barrel adopt that model, but there are some things we can do . . . Companies are required to be part of vertical trade associations and contribute money to them . . . students early on have access to technical tracks in school. Kids like to go into them and compete for spots in them. There is clearly a beneficial result . . . students come out with at least a couple job offers.

The Japanese have a similar model. They have a series of technical colleges associated with the local industrial sectors [where] they spend at least a year of the five-year program working in a factory setting. The data I’ve seen say that there are at least five or 10 job offers for those students when they finish. We can’t replicate that, but we need to develop more programs of this type . . . Working with educational institutions can be a challenge, too, because often they don’t see that there’s a future in manufacturing.”

Isbister: There’s a real inertial barrier in our educational institutions. . . .Tom, you say there are obstacles to the U.S. moving to models like Germany and Japan—what are they?

Duesterberg: First of all, they are more homogeneous, consensus-oriented societies . . . plus, they understand that the industrial sector is a very important part of their economies . . . we’re much more entrepreneurial and diverse here, and there are more opinions about what our future holds. . . . Many people say the future of our economy is in the service sector. This perception is one of the biggest barriers we have.

--Paul Thomas

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