Remaking Industry Podcast: An interview with The Manufacturing Millennial

April 28, 2022
What's with the kids these days?!

Chris: Welcome to the Smart Industry podcast, "Remaking Industry," where we dive deep into the tools, techniques, and technologies that are accelerating digital transformation. All right. Thanks for joining us on the podcast here. My name is Chris McNamara, editor in chief with Smart Industry. We're thrilled to have you join us. Today we're talking to Jake Hall, or otherwise known as The Manufacturing Millennial. Jake, how you doing?

Chris: Let's introduce you a little bit to the audience. Tell me about a hobby you have outside of work. What's something that's a passion of yours?

Jake: Oh, man. I got two that go together. I'm a diehard Cubs fan. So, I love to watch any and all baseball games that I can get in front of me, if that's in person. Here in Grand Rapids, our local AA team are, you know, headed over to Wrigley, and watching some games that way is definitely a big hobby. The other one I would say is smoking barbecue. So, I am a barbecue enthusiast, of brisket, pork butts, ribs, beef, chuck, whatever you got.

Chris: Nice. Love it. Love it. Now, talk to me about your day job, and then your moonlighting role as the Manufacturing Millennial. What do you do for a living? And then who and what is the Manufacturing Millennial?

Jake: Yeah. So, my day job, I work for a company called Feyen Zylstra. We are an electrical services industrial tech company that focuses on helping end-users and manufacturers with their modernization and digital transformation journey. We love working with companies that want to leverage new technology to make them more agile, profitable, and also attract a future workforce by new technology. We know that manufacturers are struggling in all areas, from workforce, to supply chain, to, you know, changing demands in the products that they're manufacturing. And so, whatever we can do to help them with that strategy, anywhere from, you know, doing the high-low voltage, to networking the fire systems at a large manufacturer, to building out a SCADA/MES system for them, we touch literally anything that has electrons running through it, we support them in the four corners of their building.

Chris: Okay. And who is the Manufacturing Millennial?

Jake: Yeah. So, the Manufacturing Millennial is a personal brand, Chris, that I've been developing for about two years now. And it's evolved from me going to conferences and trade shows years ago, and recognizing that younger generations are very underrepresented in the industry. And we'll get into that in a little bit. But, you know, the name the Manufacturing Millennial came about because I'm a millennial, I'm in manufacturing, I love it, it's a passion of mine. And really, what I do is I try and advocate the industry, and the importance of what manufacturing automation robotics can bring to end-users, and then also, at the same time, how we can attract a future workforce and, you know, focus on skilled trades through the new technology and solutions that are out there.

Chris: Okay. So, let's talk about that. What is the impression of... Let's talk about it from the perspective of the millennial first. What does the average millennial think about manufacturing? And let me back that up a little bit, too. I hate even to kind of generalize that much, because oftentimes we paint with too broad a brush about what generations are like and what perceptions are. But, you know, the common belief is that young workers find that manufacturing is dark, dangerous, and dirty. They don't wanna get into it. Is that true? Is that particularly true with millennial workforces? What's your take?

Jake: Yeah. I think it's absolutely true. It goes back to, Chris, when you look at the numbers out there, there was a survey that was done a couple years ago where... I forgot what it was, 4,000 or 5000, you know, studies were out there. And what happened was, when adults were surveyed, they asked, "Do you believe manufacturing is critical to the U.S. economy and to our national security?" And 8 out of 10 said, "Yes, manufacturing is absolutely critical."

Chris: Sure.

Jake: And then one of the follow-up questions was, "Would you recommend your kid going into that industry?" And 2 out of 10 or 3 out of 10 said yes. So, here we have this massive discrepancy, where people recognize, the industry is very impactful, it's very important. However, they believe that their kids shouldn't be in the industry, because, going back to, you know, a guidance counselor, when you're graduating high school, we were told, "Your next journey in life is a four-year degree. And if it's not engineering, it's something else." Well, here we have, from, you know, the earliest point of a kid's developing career, we're telling them that entering the manufacturing workforce right away is not something that's viable. And I think it goes back to, you know, we think manufacturing as our parents' or our grandparents' job, especially with the world of social media, where it's just...you gotta have this cool hipster California avocado toast Silicon Valley-type of lifestyle to be successful, and that's just not the case.

Chris: Yeah.

Jake: We look at the numbers. The average student graduated from college, graduates with somewhere between $33,000 to $36,000 in student debt. So, immediately, when they're graduating, "entering the industry," they're already years behind in terms of their own adult development compared to a kid who, let's say, went to a trade school right out of high school, went in and started working for a company, started his apprentice, journeyman, and became a career. And now this kid, who's, I know several of them who are 22, 23 years old that are pulling in six figures.

So, this misconception that manufacturing is this dark, dirty, dangerous, dull environment just goes to the area of what we viewed manufacturing 40 years ago. And it goes back to the 1970s, '80s, where we saw a lot of jobs leaving America, going overseas, because of what we saw as cheap labor over there, but that's not even the case anymore. When you look at the industry, like, in a lot of Southeast Asia, Asia-Pacific countries, they're automating their manufacturing processes at a rate higher than we are in North America. So, the perception of manufacturing being this age-old industry is very inaccurate now. The adoption of new technology is what's driving a lot of opportunity for a lot of domestic companies here in America. It's bringing jobs back, and it's creating a lot of opportunity to see a lot of new ways we can automate industries that have never been touched before, for example, just besides outside the automotive industry,

Chris: Yeah. Well, let me play devil's advocate, though. I'm a young guy, I'm just coming out of high school. You know, okay, I hear Jake say that manufacturing is this viable path to a successful life, but I also hear, all the time, automation, automation, robots, cobots. I'm gonna be automated out of a job in two years. Well, how do career opportunities and enhanced automation coincide with each other?

Jake: Yeah. I mean, I would go in the same thing, right? We've all heard that thing. We'll be automated out of a job, automated out of a job. Well, when we look at stuff, right, when the ATM came about, that was gonna happen. When the loom came about, that was gonna happen. When the spindle and wheel came about, you know, we were always worried about this stuff. Well, jobs are evolving. We're moving from more mundane, manual tasks to more infrastructure, well, not infrastructure. Automated, intelligent systems. So, we're still gonna need...even if we're automating, we're gonna need those robot programmers, we're gonna need those developers, we're gonna need those people who are leveraging new technology.

I mean, look at the industry in the past three to four years, how much artificial intelligence and AI, you know, have impacted the robotics industry, especially in the warehouse and logistics world, where all of these companies are now... We're all buying product online now. Well, in order to keep up that demand, we're automating a lot of manual tasks. Well, we're seeing a huge demand, with a bunch of jobs, for people who need robot skills. And to say that you're being automated out of a task or automated out of a job, I would say is, "Well, what job do you think you're being automated out of?" Because if you go into skilled trades, or you develop skills that are gonna be valued in the industry, you're creating more opportunity for yourself, in my opinion, you're creating job security for yourself for your entire life.

Chris: Interesting. Let me ask you about the flip side. We were talking about the image of manufacturing from the mindset of the millennial. What... And I'm gonna ask you to generalize here a little bit too, but what is the impression of millennials among manufacturing decision-makers, shop owners, CEOs, CTOs, IT, OT team, hiring managers? What do they... They need workers, I know that much. What do they think of the young person coming out of school? Is the stereotype true that these kids are glued to their phones and they only want a sexy job, they want to be an influencer? What do hiring teams think of young workers?

Jake: Yeah. I mean, there is that perception out there that, you know, there's the entitled folk, you know, the entitled kids that are coming out there, that just want to not work and get everything. And I think that's with every generation.

Chris: Well, who doesn't? Right?

Jake: I mean, ideally, right? We would all love to not work and get everything. But, I mean, I think there's always those crowds that speak the loudest. And I don't think what we see there is a mass representation of what our industry is, and a mass representation of what the younger generations are. For example, you know, they say millennials and Gen Zs, they're very entitled. They're the ones that want, you know, that need the participation trophy. But, you know, if you were to talk to a millennial, Gen Z, they hate it. It wasn't them that was asking for a participation trophy. It was their parents. It was the older generation before them that was saying, "Why is my kid not getting something? Why is my kid not being treated fairly?"

So, a lot of stereotypes have been developed around every industry. But what I would say is, around these younger generations, they do have a sense of empowerment, where, if you're asking, "What am I doing to attract a future workforce in my area, or a future worker?" it's no longer just you paying them $2 an hour above what other industries are paying to attract them out there, what manufacturing was. Well, now it's younger generations care more about impact and purpose. What is your impact on what you're doing at that company? What is your focus on sustainability? Newer generations, I would say, as millennials and Gen Zs, they have a different outlook on what they want their future to be defined as.

No young adult wants to go and work for 12 hours and be exhausted, and then they can't do anything when they get home. They want the ability to go and work for a company like a manufacturer, but then still be able to go and do the hiking trip with their friends that evening, and then come back to work. So, what are you doing as a manufacturer to adapt to this new way of life, and still be able to be productive with your manufacturing process? So I think that's how leveraging new technology, and as you said, you know, the kids who are connected to their smartphone, well, let's face it, technology creates a lot of opportunity to be more efficient. So, if that kid loves working with technology, and his iPad and iPhone or computer so much, what are you doing to leverage digital work instructions, job setup, your ERP system, whatever it is, from a digital standpoint?

We all know that digital is more efficient across the board in terms of standards, revisions, editing, control, all of that. And if you're a company that says, "Well, I don't know how to handle that information," well, thankfully, you have this brand new generation who has literally grown up with an iPad in their hands since they were born, who know this technology in and out. And the numbers are there. Look at the Raspberry Pi community. Look at all the at-home developers who are learning how to write code as a hobby. All the people who are buying 3D printers to make stuff at their house and understanding manufacturing processes from an early age. We've always been tinkerers, right? From your generation to my generation to my father's to my grandfather's, we've all had that tinker area. It's just our tinker is digital. So, as manufacturing transforms from a product-based industry to a digital industry, in a lot of cases, this future workforce is the ability to really enable your future, you know, stake in the industry, and being competitive.

Chris: You just touched on a little bit there about... But let me ask you to dive down and then address the flip side. What are manufacturers doing to attract young workers? And what are they failing to do? What's an opportunity that manufacturing hiring teams can take to attract young workers?

Jake: Yeah. I mean, what I'm seeing companies doing well is leveraging new technology, in a way. If a young person leaving high school walks into a manufacturing facility that doesn't even have a screen on them to give them access to what information is happening to that machine, why would they wanna work there when there's, you know, no display of access to information? If they wanted to make a change to a product, and they have to open up a three-ring binder, walk to the shelf, dust off this book that Bob, the maintenance man, who's been there for 50 years, has his scratch notes in there, and he's gotta dig through there to find how to do a changeover, that's not enjoyable. My four-year-old daughter knows how to operate a...knows how to operate the YouTube app, and find what information or what show she wants to watch. Why as a manufacturer would you not be putting your work instructions, your job setups, your daily tasks on a digital platform, right? If a worker or a younger generation is going into the manufacturing industry and stepping back 30 years, they're saying this future employer...this employer is not investing in me. They're not even investing in their own company.

So, that's the one thing I would say where you see companies doing well and not doing well, is adapting technology that is familiar with their workforce.

Chris: Yeah. I was gonna say it's maybe not even, like, emerging technology, it's current technology. 

Jake: You don't need to strap in AR goggles for every single task that you're doing, but what you do need to do is have the ability to have information that's accessible. If your training is still through three-ring binders, and not through a digital process that's guiding people through how to run a machine, first of all, you're being extremely inefficient from your own HR perspective, but then you're losing quality control, you're losing revision control. And it's not an exciting thing. But I always go back to, as well, manufacturers and companies need to do a better job communicating the purpose of why they're doing this job, beyond just "we make parts." You're making parts for a part of a car that's impacting people. And I think that's society in general. They don't realize how much manufacturing here in America still impacts them domestically.

Chris: Of course. 

Jake: I mean, once in a while, you'll hear, it's like, "Oh, the toilet paper, you know, shortage of 2020." Well, I mean, that's part of it. But a lot of the components that you touch on a daily basis is as a result of manufacturing. We're a consumer-based industry. And just being able to better communicate the purpose you're driving and the sustain...and the cultural change you're doing within a company is important. And it's not just to appease the young people. I really think it's important from a manufacturer's responsibility to impact the culture of their community. And that's where I think a lot of manufacturers need to do a lot better job, is getting involved with their local community, getting involved with their local high schools, or local colleges or institutes, and develop skilled trade jobs and programs that are eventually going to then transform into their future employee.

Chris: Yeah. Interesting. Talk to me about the pandemic. How has this factored in here, particularly with remote work and working from home and automating, you know, facility management? How does the pandemic come into play here?

Jake: Yeah. I mean, well, let's do the numbers, right? Within the pandemic right now, they're saying that the unemployment rate is close to what it was pre-pandemic yet manufacturers are still screaming for workers.

Jake: So, we're not gonna see an influx of workers coming back to our industry. That's just not the case. What we need to do is we need to better leverage the people that we have, retain them in our industry, and adapt automation to make that worker more valuable and efficient in what they do. The pandemic really has driven a couple things. One is we've realized the risk of the supply chain and how that has affected us, as a U.S. manufacturer, where people said, "Oh, well, this isn't gonna impact [inaudible 00:18:11] for me. We don't buy anything from China." You might not, but your supplier does, or their supplier does, or their supplier does. So even though they never thought they were directly affected by a global supply chain, it took maybe two or three layers, but then it did. So, what we're seeing now is a lot of manufacturers who are, in a sense, partnering with their suppliers, their tier-two, tier-three, tier-four groups, and creating a better relationship and platform to really become more efficient and de-risk what they've felt the last 18 to 24 months.

Chris: De-risk. I love that. Last question for you here. Well, second-to-last question. Talking about the near future, let's forecast a little bit. What does the next five years look like for the young workforce, and for enterprises looking to engage with young workers?

Jake: Yeah. I mean, I think what we're gonna be running in, I mean, the next five years is going to be...we're really going to be feeling the weight of a lot of older generations retiring, the continued retirement of the silver tsunami, the boomers of the industry, right? Let's look at the welding industry, for example. There's 450,000 to 550,000 welders in the United States. The average age of that welder is 56 years old.

Chris: Yeah. Wow.

Jake: So, when we look at that, imagine the impact we're gonna have in the next 5 to 10 years when a massive amount of what we call a skill, a very critical skilled trade job retires. Well, we're never gonna be able to build back up that workforce. We definitely need to encourage younger generations to go into skilled trades, especially as more and more younger generations are realizing that the promise of a four-year college degree that's going to give them a prosperous life was not completely true. When we look at the national...we look at the average... I think... And correct me if I'm wrong, Chris, for the audience, if they go back and look at this, but I wanna say the national student debt is larger than, like, the credit card debt in the industry, and the automobile debt in the industry. There's more student debt out there, in a lot of cases, than I think even the whole mortgage market. And I'd have to go... But it's this massive, crazy number. And I think what we're gonna see is a lot of younger generations saying, "I don't wanna go to college and just immediately graduate with a bunch of debt, where I might not even use my degree."

So, I think what manufacturers need to do in the next 5, 10 years as outlook is you have a future workforce that is looking for something other than a four-year degree. And if you can offer them training, if you can offer them skills, if you could offer them purpose with their career, and if you could offer them a future opportunity to continue to re-skill, that's gonna drive them forward in the industry, I think that's a prime opportunity. Within the manufacturing industry, I think it's one of those places that you can go from being an operator to a factory...to being a plant manager in 15 years, you know, from literally making $16, $17, $18 an hour to pulling in $200,000 at a facility. You have the ability to work within a manufacturing company and grow, just by, you know, investing in it and learning it and getting those skills that I think, you know, if manufacturers really want to find, as we adapt to a more automated-based industry, you need to hire the people in your facility and train them in a way where they understand the manufacturing processes, they understand your product, they understand your company culture. Now, skill them in a way that, when you bring in the automation, is gonna continue to keep you competitive and viable.

Chris: Yeah. Interesting. Last question for you, Jake. How are the Cubs gonna do this year?

Jake: Oh, man. I'll put them 20 games above 500.

Chris: Optimistic.

Jake: That's where I'll put them. It's a tough year. We got some great players, but in terms of our division, the Cardinals have a great team this year. They're in their last hurrah with Wainwright. And Pujols is back, and Medina and all, you know, all those people. And the same thing with the Brewers. So, I'm optimistic. You never know. But I don't think we're gonna be... We're not a World Series contender this year. What's your [inaudible 00:22:53] You know what? We're always a World Series contender. What am I saying?

Chris: An optimist. I love it. Jake Hall, The Manufacturing Millennial, thanks for joining us on the podcast today.

Jake: I appreciate it, Chris. It's always a pleasure.

Chris: And to our audience, as always, we encourage you to go out and make it a smart day.

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