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Manufacturing’s Millennial Problem and a Workforce Management Solution

Apr 2, 2015 10:12:00 AM

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It’s not easy to feel bad for a manufacturing industry suffering from self-inflicted wounds. But, we’re not here to point fingers, we’re here to provide solutions. So what exactly is troubling US manufacturers with respect to their collective labor force, and how can workforce management solutions make a difference? Let’s examine the challenge and explore solutions below. 

Manufacturing worked furiously through the 2000s to offshore its workforce to low-cost markets abroad in order to maximize profitability and shareholder value. This happened just as the bulk of the Millennial generation (those people born in 1985 and later) was beginning to enter the workforce. These activities, while financially beneficial in the short term, cemented the perception among young workers that manufacturing jobs – once the backbone of the American middle class economy – were somehow no longer desirable and better suited to unskilled, low-cost labor in Asia and South America.

By 2010, manufacturers had learned the grass wasn’t necessarily greener operating in low-cost centers as shipping costs and inconsistent labor quality began to erode the profit margins they sought to fatten through outsourcing. As the broad trend toward re-shoring continues, manufacturers are feeling the effects of having poisoned the well, so to speak, with Millennials who rightly or wrongly perceive manufacturing as old, dirty, laborious, blue collar work with little room for innovation or advancement. The perception is at odds with the ethos associated with Millennials with its focus on technology, social consciousness, and the so-called “new economy”.  

This perception gap was recently highlighted by an annual manufacturing industry survey completed by Thomasnet, wherein more than half (52%) of polled manufacturing leaders in the US reported their intention to add new labor to their operations during 2015. This number was up significantly from the 42% reporting last year. The problem is, the Millennials (who should theoretically backfill these positions as Boomer generation retirements continue) are simply not at all interested in manufacturing as a career.

According to the Manufacturing Leadership blog, Millennials ”are destined to comprise about 75 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2025.”  There simply is no escaping the fact that demographically, manufacturing in the US will depend on this younger generation for its survival. Yet, the Thomasnet survey clearly shows there is little appetite amongst manufacturing leadership (mostly Boomers) to do what it takes to attract the Millennial talent the industry so desperately needs. So what can be done to change this troubling dynamic?

The Thomasnet report offers good advice on the numerous ways the modern manufacturing industry actually does align with Millennials’ value systems and focus on careers rich in technological opportunity.  Thomasnet suggests, “Millennials have an opportunity to make a social impact working with sustainable and green technologies, solar energy, and wind power. In addition, survey respondents cite innovations in design and manufacturing software, automation/robotics, and 3D printing as intrinsic to today's jobs.”

Another hallmark of the Millennial attitude toward the workplace is the notion of flexible work hours and working arrangements. The young generation is far more comfortable with contract, contingent, and project work having grown up in a labor market already comfortable with these practices.  Workforce management solution providers mirror this comfort level having embraced non-traditional labor arrangements as a core function of their service offerings. 

Leading solution providers are leveraging this alignment between their offerings and the natural proclivities of the Millennial worker.  It is logical to conclude that human capital companies must lead the charge when it comes to filling positions in manufacturing with Millennials. Who is better prepared, both functionally and philosophically, to draw the next generation back into the fold than staffing suppliers and workforce management solutions providers?
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