Blog: Millennials – The Key to the Future of Manufacturing

Anyone working in manufacturing today knows the number one issue facing the industry is the ability to attract and retain talent. And anyone dealing with this “talent shortage” knows that Millennials, or Generation Y, are the most viable labor pool. But with so many perceived differences in career desires among Millennials, how can manufacturers tap into this generation of potential workers?
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Jamie Headley
Jamie Headley

Anyone working in manufacturing today knows the number one issue facing the industry is the ability to attract and retain talent. And anyone dealing with this “talent shortage” knows that Millennials, or Generation Y, are the most viable labor pool. But with so many perceived differences in career desires among Millennials, how can manufacturers tap into this generation of potential workers?

They must recognize that Millennials are not all that different from previous generations.

In order to understand this, we first need to understand what exactly it is that Millennials want out of work. I often engage Millennials in discussions about what they want in an employer. In these discussions, they typically prioritize qualities such as:

  • Work-life balance
  • Fair compensation
  • Clean, safe workplace
  • Opportunity for growth
  • Feeling valued by the organization
  • Emotional connection to the work or organization

Who doesn’t want those things? Generally, many label Millennials as “lazy” or “entitled” because they ask for these qualities at work. In reality, it is human nature. It is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is what everyone wants – even previous generations.

In this strong economy, do we really expect people of any age to be happy just to have a job? The days of, “You are lucky to have this job and if you don’t like it, there’s the door” have passed. That attitude, while possible during economic downturns, has never been a successful way to build a loyal workforce. If organizations want to attract talent of any age, they have to find a way to incorporate these outlined traits into their culture.

In many ways, I believe manufacturers have an advantage in these areas. For example:

Work-life balance – In this digital age, burnout has become a huge issue. Digital devices allow us to be connected to work 24/7, with organizations expecting their employees to be available far beyond the hours of 8 am to 5 pm. For manufacturing, this is a major selling point. Most hourly manufacturing jobs do not require employees to be constantly connected. And, if they are asked to work extra hours, they are paid for it, often at time and a half. This gives workers more control over their work-life balance and essentially allows them to disconnect from work outside of scheduled hours.

Fair compensation – People are coming to work to get paid. All things being equal, if they can get paid more to work somewhere else, they will. In manufacturing, many highly skilled positions can provide six figure incomes and production roles often offer the option for overtime. Small organizations that cannot afford to increase wages must find ways to compensate for this with the other desired traits – but this is only a short-term fix. Long-term, they need to take a hard look at the operation and determine why they cannot afford to offer competitive wages.

Clean, safe workplace – This has to be an organizational priority if you plan to retain people and stay in business. This can be tougher for manufacturers based on the nature of production processes. However, those companies that have worked to make the environment clean and safe have a large competitive edge over the many who have not. Showcase your clean environment by getting involved in school or career programs or other community events, like Manufacturing Day. This just might pay off in the long run by supporting employee attraction efforts.

Options for growth – Not every person in an organization will want to move up the ladder, but most at least want the option to continue learning and improving their skills (and increase their pay). Manufacturers typically have salaried and hourly jobs that require a wide variety of skills, and thus might offer more varied career pathways compared to narrow industries, such as financial planning or social work. This exposes young employees to different options as they are determining what type of job really appeals to them, while providing multiple opportunities for growth within the organization.

Feeling valued – We all want to be appreciated. There are lots of creative and even low-cost ways to let employees know they are valued. Often, implementing employee appreciation programs in manufacturing can be more difficult due to factors such as not being able to shut down production, shifts, hourly and salaried workers having different expectations, etc. You will know when you get this one right because your workforce will be your biggest referral for new employees. If you are unsure of where to begin, ask your employees.

Emotional connection – While this terminology may be new for some, the concept is not. Most people want to feel good about the work they do or the products they make. Millennials tend to prioritize this aspect, so companies need to be more vocal about the positive impacts of their company or products. Manufacturers have a distinct advantage here, as they actually make products that make a difference in the world.

Each generation has its own nuances and views of work, and Millennials are no different. But looking closer, as seen through this list, it is clear that many desires are in fact shared across age groups and demographics.

To further support this, I asked a Millennial friend, age 29, what she thought her generation wanted from employers that might be different than previous generations. All in all, she didn’t think they were that different, and stated that she believes the biggest difference is the need for emotional connection and the ability to have a positive impact on the world.

I then asked a Baby Boomer friend, age 73, what she wanted from an employer when she first entered the workforce in the 1970s. Her response was nearly identical.

If manufacturers – or organizations of any kind – want to attract and retain good talent of all ages, they need to have strong leadership, be open minded and treat their employees well. Perhaps not much has changed after all…

Jamie Headley is a senior business solutions manager at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, a consulting organization serving Michigan manufacturers.

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