Bringing Sexy Back to Manufacturing

Manufacturing has an image problem. To the general public, and most importantly to high school and college-aged youths, manufacturing work is perceived to be back-breaking, tedious, dirty, and dangerous. This perception is a major contributor to the “skills gap” in manufacturing, with companies struggling to find workers to fill jobs in the factory despite high unemployment rates. People just don’t want to work in manufacturing, and young people are not interested in learning the skills needed to get those jobs.

Manufacturing today is not what it was fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago. The modern factory is more likely to be clean, brightly lit, well organized, and safe. Factory jobs today are more about electronic controls and touch screens than about repetitive stress syndrome and breathing masks. But the general public doesn’t understand that.

Another part of the skills gap is the obsolete idea that a four-year college education or advanced degree is the only or best route to high-paying jobs.

There’s nothing wrong with higher education, of course, but very few degrees outside of science, technology, engineering, or math (the so-called STEM curricula) provide marketable skills that qualify the recipient for employment in the manufacturing arena. The biggest needs—and the biggest opportunities for someone wanting to work in manufacturing—are the “trades” like machinist, welder, lab technician, and CNC programmer/operator. These capabilities are most commonly taught in trade schools, community colleges, and in-house training programs at manufacturing companies. For the latter, a basic (high school level) education, including STEM, can be the key that opens the door. But the candidate must want to work in manufacturing to even be aware of the opportunities.

For the geeks out there, new generations of robotics, machine vision, automated controls and sensors, and 3D printing—coupled with powerful computing concepts like cloud, analytics, and the Internet of Things—make it quite easy to find the “cool” in manufacturing. It’s a hotbed for innovation in both product and process—akin to any attractive tech startup. What’s not to like?

Which brings us back to the image problem. And, the best answer might be god old-fashioned public relations. Manufacturers need to reach out to the community with the message that the industry is different now. They need to reach the young, in particular through schools, youth groups, and sponsorship of community events and activities. Summer jobs, internships, and apprenticeship programs all help employable young people see with their own eyes what today’s factory really looks like and what career opportunities are there.

Of course, if you want to promote manufacturing as a great place to work for the upcoming generations, it has to actually be a great place to work for today’s employees. Manufacturers also need to invest in their employees today, and foster an environment that results in employee satisfaction, retention and referrals.

What is your company doing to help young people discover the exciting realities of manufacturing in the 21st century?