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Great Expectations: Attracting Millennials to Careers in Manufacturing

Great Expectations: Attracting Millennials to Careers in Manufacturing
Great Expectations: Attracting Millennials to Careers in Manufacturing

Last year, The Manufacturing Institute partnered with Deloitte to update its manufacturing skills gap report—the findings were concerning, to say the least. The report revealed that the United States will need to fill nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade. A staggering 2 million of those jobs are likely to go unfilled due to the skills gap.

As Baby Boomers exit the workforce, the need to attract younger workers to manufacturing has never been more important. A crucial target: millennials, who the U.S. Census Bureau defines as people between ages 18 and 34 by 2015. The pool of millennials is vast—this generation has recently overtaken baby boomers as the largest with 75.4 million who fall into this category. But while their numbers may be plenty, attracting them to an industry suffering from an image problem has proven challenging.

Jennifer McNelly, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, says while Americans overwhelmingly believe manufacturing is important, they don’t necessarily want their children to pursue careers in the industry. According to the organization’s public perception survey, 90 percent of Americans believe that manufacturing is very important to economic prosperity, and 82 percent believe the U.S. should further invest in manufacturing. But just one in three parents surveyed would encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing. The reasons: worry about job security and stability and the belief that the industry has limited career prospects.

And it seems young people are listening to their parents.

“When you actually segmented that out to the Millennial Generation, interest in manufacturing jobs dropped to the rock bottom,” said McNelly. “These are the workers we need today. They’re employed today somewhere and moving towards management, if not already there. It remains a persistent problem for us and something we really need new strategies to change.”

The good news, McNelly says, is that the manufacturing industry fully recognizes the problem and is working hard to address it. Companies are investing in summer camps for kids and programs like First Robotics, an international youth organization that operates robotics and Lego competitions. Manufacturers are also participating in National Manufacturing Day. In its third year, over 2,600 events attracted more than 400,000 students and parents to celebrate manufacturing and promote it as a fulfilling and fruitful career option. 

The Manufacturing Institute launched an ambassador’s toolkit targeted to millennials during last year’s Manufacturing Day. The toolkit provides manufacturers with a guide to create an ambassador program that encourages employees to engage today’s workforce and to expose more students to careers in manufacturing. And manufacturers are already taking advantage.

Cooper Tire, a global replacement tire manufacturer headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, participates in the Manufacturing Institute’s Dream It. Do It. program, and has recruited some 40 employees to serve as ambassadors on “The Dream Team.” The company says their ambassador program is already having an impact.

“We’re actually going back to focus on eighth graders with most of our outreach efforts because eighth grade is one of those ages where kids are making their first decisions, opinions, forming their idea of what they might want to do for their careers, so it’s not at all too early to start to talk with them about careers in manufacturing,” said Anne Roman, vice president of communications and public affairs for Cooper Tire.

Roman says the makeup of the Dream Team is purposefully diverse so young people can see that manufacturing isn’t just about “making stuff,” but offers careers in a variety of fields.

“Students are intrigued when we tell them how many people it actually takes to make a tire,” said Dream Team ambassador and associate engineer for Cooper Tire Patrick Wallace. “From innovation in tire design and materials to manufacturing, through sales and marketing — taking a tire from concept to production and delivering it to the end user is a complex process.”

The company also participates in Manufacturing Day, and Roman says feedback from parents and students has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We received great surveys back. One parent wrote to us and talked about the fact that her child has never expressed that much excitement about anything that took place at school until he was exposed to this. It’s fascinating.”

Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME, works to provide schools with the latest curriculum that aligns to what the industry needs. Kunz says she sees more schools coming to the table to work with local employers and ensure students are equipped with the right skills to satisfy the needs of today’s manufacturers.

“We’re getting into more and more projects that have both parties at the table—not just us sitting at the table trying to transfer that knowledge from industry to schools, but also having employers sitting at the table, sitting on advisory committees, or schools going into the companies themselves to see what’s happening.”

But Kunz says an area that needs more attention is ensuring enough students are enrolled in programs geared toward the manufacturing field.

“There are schools that have had to close their programs,” said Kunz. “They have great programs. They have beautiful new equipment for these kids to learn on, but not enough kids are enrolled.”

“There really needs to be a call to action for the industry, parents, career counselors—there’s a lot of people who play a role. It’s going to take a village to address it.”