Millennials in Manufacturing - Impruver

Its no secret that Millennials are not flocking to the glorious and illustrious manufacturing jobs that have kept food on the tables of families worldwide since the industrial revolution. Why would they when we carry the image in our minds as manufacturing jobs being dirty, dangerous, career limiting, and on top of that, just hard work? Who wants to be chained to a production line, on their feet most of the day, at the bottom of the totem pole with limited opportunity for advancement? This is especially difficult against a backdrop where the exciting prospects of technology and other channels of entrepreneurship are easier and more accessible than ever. Given the choice between making a living being creative and following your passion or working at a factory doing something a robot could easily be doing in 2 years, it’s sort-of a no-brainer for a Millennial with options.

So how do manufacturing companies attract, develop, and retain top Millennial talent? Manufacturing, as a career choice, is suffering from a branding problem to say the least and a deeper generational culture problem as well. At the shop floor level, the lack of freedom over work schedules and inability to exercise creativity are major turn-offs. At the professional level, the lack of career mobility and exposure to the broader business, and demands on lifestyle are viewed as less attractive.

However, these constraints and their perception can be improved. And in combination with some of the perks of manufacturing such as higher-than-average earnings and job security, manufacturing companies can create a powerfully attractive career proposition for budding professionals.

Here are 5 great things manufacturers can do to attract and retain Millennial talent:

1) Open Career Development Channels

Aside from Jack Welch and Lee Iococca, it’s extremely rare to find a C-level executive who started out in manufacturing and rose up through the ranks, especially in consumer-driven industries. In fact, many CPG companies consider manufacturing an afterthought that could be easily outsourced as soon as it makes business since to do so. Some factories are arranged with one supervisor managing over 25 direct reports. To make matters worse, when that supervisor moves on, the company has to hire from outside because none of their dozens of direct reports have been developed to step into the newly opened leadership role. Manufacturers would do themselves a great service to take talent recognition and development more seriously. Throughout my career, I’ve met some extremely talented people working on the shop floor doing things everyday that have nothing to do with their talent or passion. This includes graphic artists, photographers, musicians, event organizers, and just natural leaders. Meanwhile, the plants suffer from issues that this very same non-utilized talent could be applied toward. Manufacturing leaders need to be more creative in getting people in the right position to reach their potential and bring greater value to the organization. They also need to do better about developing leaders and promoting from within to optimize business continuity amid leadership changes.

2) Factory – Bad; Laboratory of Performance Excellence and Innovation- Good

I’ve worked in the factories of several fortune 100 companies and consulted for many others. Some of them have been outstanding facilities and some not so much. The good ones are clean, quiet, the people are happy and friendly; even the food seems to taste better. The “not so much” ones are disorganized, loud, and you just get the feeling that no one really wants to be there. However, the best places to work are the ones where the employees have more power; meaning they have the freedom to shape the work environment to their liking. They are encouraged to innovate and try new things and are trained on Lean methods like 5S to create a safe and efficient workplace. They have more ownership in their area of the business and take responsibility for results. As a result, turnover is lower and community is stronger. The message – people thrive in a place where things are improving – and they are making it happen. A good strategy is to give younger people more say in how things are done. Let them have some fun developing perks and creating an environment that meets both the customer needs and their own.

3) Create a Generation of Manufacturing Rock Stars

This goes without say, manufacturing people typically aren’t very good marketers – of products or themselves. In most companies, going to work in the factory is like working in a dark closet. Aside from the people working in the box with you, no one knows your story. You don’t get much exposure to Sr Leadership, who probably can’t tell you from the other long line of faces working across the manufacturing base. Oh, if you want to be recognized outside of the company, you can forget it. There simply aren’t very many good platforms for it. Examples of incredible achievements are abound but much of it is done in silence, largely due to the culture of privacy that governs many manufacturers. Many of these same companies spend millions on advertising and promoting their products. Why not incorporate your value-stream rock stars into the company’s branding? Not only show the world that your people are having fun, but show your people that they are the real value creators for the business. At least find good ways to recognize the innovators throughout the company and present them the way they want to be seen (not necessarily in a hard hat and safety goggles) but as respected leaders in their communities.

4) Embrace the Latest Technology

A disproportionate amount of factory leaders and workers are over the age of 50. Without over-generalizing, they’re probably not going to be overly enthusiastic about experimenting with the latest and greatest technology. However, Millennials thrive on being technologically savvy and take great pleasure in staying on the cutting edge for both hard (equipment) and soft (digital) tech. Some manufactures still haven’t embraced cloud-based solutions like Continuous Improvement Software,, for fear of developing dependency and data security. In fact, a culture of fear of a lot of things happening outside of the box (the factory) are a big turn-off for Millennials. These types of technologies are highly affordable and secure, produce outstanding performance results, and are extremely engaging for employees of all ages. Manufacturers need to move into the 21st century when it comes to both hard and soft technology. Use systems like to kickstart your Lean Manufacturing and digital transformation. Also open the doors to equipment companies looking to show off the latest and greatest to keep your workforce up to speed on the art of the possible.

5) Give Them the Business

They may be young, inexperienced, and perhaps some are difficult to deal with but at some point, so were you – and look how you turned out. Challenge them to master their roles and prepare them for leadership. Remember that the best coaches were not always the best players. Seek to place them in opportunities that accelerate them toward their potential. To do this, you have to get out of the way. Many business leaders, especially in manufacturing, are reaching an age where they can best serve as advisers, consultants, and mentors, but they still behave like directors. Consider that it may be time to embrace your future as the village elder and let the next generation start to call the shots. Sure they’re going to make mistakes but they’ll quickly learn the value in your wisdom. A wise person once said “teach them well and let them lead the way”. That’s all they want – and we’re all better for it.

Manufacturing isn’t going anywhere. In fact, as the population increases, so will the need for things to be made. The next generation will grab the reigns soon whether you’re ready for it or not. The only question is what calibre of talent will flow into manufacturing versus other, more glamorous and promising, industries? A lot can be done to make the transition smoother, but it will require taking a leap of faith in giving them the opportunity to grow into leaders. They may not lead exactly the way you would but you have to trust that they have a better point of view into what the world is becoming than you do – just as you did when it was your time.

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