Jun. 27, 2016 – Manufacturing in North America has fallen behind, and now many are paying for it. Yes, we’ve invested in innovation and yes, we’ve invested in training and yes, we pay better than average wages but still we are struggling to fill our vacant jobs and we struggle even more to attract and retain younger workers. We’ve let our on-floor factory jobs become stagnant, unexciting, unengaging and unattractive.
This hasn’t just happened all of a sudden. It started a generation or two ago when we started teaching our kids that they wanted something other than a blue-collar job. We told them to stay in school to get a good career, like a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, or anything in the information technology sector. That’s what was going on outside our plants that made new workers choose to stay away and what’s going on inside our plants that is making the problem worse—or perhaps it is more accurate to say it’s what is not going on inside our plants that is making new workers stay away.
Our factory workplaces fail to recognize that times have indeed changed as far as the new working generation is concerned. Young people today aren’t motivated simply by money; lifestyle and interaction with others are very important to them, as is feedback and the belief their input matters. They don’t have the same delineation of life that previous generations may have had (i.e. “working life,” “family life,” and “social life”). And, they are not as content to do something seemingly meaningless all day long just because it is their job. They have an insatiable need for feedback. They grew up playing games where measurement was constant and feedback was immediate. They are not content to wait until the end of the month, or even the week, to be told if they’ve done a good job or enough work. In most workplaces, it’s just assumed that a sufficient standard was met — that was sufficient for other generations, but it isn’t for emerging generations.
The other part of the problem is what is happening (or not happening) outside of our factories. I’m not suggesting that all the jobs we offer on the plant floor are meaningless and mundane, we have, however, certainly allowed that perception to perpetuate and we continue to do so.
This was the topic of a recent London Region Manufacturing Council (LRMC) meeting, of which I am a member. It’s been a topic many times before. Over the last few years, the LRMC, in conjunction with the local EMC chapter, has arranged plant tour days for select high schools but this isn’t enough. It’s hard to get the high-school-aged kids interested. Here again, the perception works against us.
To break that perception, we need to start even earlier — perhaps grade 7 or 8 — or maybe even earlier than that. A couple great ideas emerged from our conversations. One member’s company has sponsored local children’s sports teams for years with only one stipulation — the players, along with their parents, must take an organized tour through the company to learn what the company does. Another idea was “borrowed” from the local home improvement big box outlet that I took my grandson to. Every month, it hosts an event for children between ages 5 and 10 to hammer a few nails into some pre-cut pieces of wood. The kids leave with not only a neat thing they built for themselves, they leave with a sense of satisfaction that comes with working with hand tools to build something — a simple thing almost entirely lost in recent generations. We can do the same thing as that retailing giant.
Rather than shuffle high school kids through our factories, overwhelming them with our big machines and complicated processes, we should make simpler, more satisfying opportunities available, such as sticking two pieces of metal together (welding), stamp something out (to create a keepsake), bend something, or push a button and watch something small get machined before their eyes. There’s a lot more pizazz and wonder happening on our plant floors that we need to share with the younger people — and I mean the really younger people. By the time they get to high school, it could be too late to change the perception.
Paul Hogendoorn (email@example.com) is co-founder of FreePoint Technologies, “Measure. Analyze. Share.” (Don’t forget to share!)
This column was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.