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How millennials are changing the manufacturing industry

July 6, 2020

A Millennial explains how new-collar jobs luring the newest workers.

Mark Broadly

As manufacturing tackles the challenges of the 21st century, Millennials are beginning to put their own stamp on the industry. Here are five ways the young workforce is making changes…

Many Millennials see manufacturing as a high-tech career with good salary potential.

37% of Millennials see manufacturing as a high-tech career. (Only 27% of Generation X and 23% of Baby Boomers had the same perception.) That means that Millennials have a more accurate appraisal of today’s manufacturing industry than their older counterparts—modern manufacturing is a high-tech career (increasingly so) that involves integrating disciplines such as programming, engineering and AI.

Although the tech sector remains the most attractive target for many Millennials, the increasing overlap of technology and manufacturing has created prestigious “new-collar” manufacturing jobs. Many of today’s manufacturing workers oversee complex operations that produce high-value goods like semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

The manufacturing industry is also appealing to many Millennials because of the relatively high pay. For high-skilled jobs such as process engineering and product design, salaries can surpass $70,000, which puts them on pace with those of other upper-income Millennial occupations such as data analysis and marketing.

Millennials with manufacturing skills are in high demand.

The manufacturing industry has many skilled older workers who will soon retire. The industry will need younger workers to step up and fill those positions but, unfortunately, there’s a limited pool with the STEM skills to do it. Despite the aforementioned reappraisal of the manufacturing industry by some Millennials, the most talented younger STEM majors are still often drawn away from manufacturing by the allure of the technology sector.

Manufacturers are working to retool their recruitment strategies to attract a workforce of talented young people. They’re implementing an increasing range of solutions designed to pull in a younger workforce, from mentorship programs to expanded benefits packages.

Millennials are digital natives who bring a fresh perspective to manufacturing challenges.

Millennials in the manufacturing industry often ground their skills in the digital environment in which they were raised. That gives them an advantage when working with software-driven systems, including IoT and robotics, and it can also give them a knack for innovation.

That’s why new-collar jobs, which integrate the factory floor with the engineering department, can be such a good fit for Millennials. Already adept at navigating digital spaces and learning new software applications, Millennials can quickly become workplace MVPs who are able to bring all of the latest tools to bear on a difficult problem.

Millennials’ facility with digital systems also means that they use mobile devices and cloud-based collaboration software more often, more easily at work. Employers should note that statistics show that more than 70% of Millennials use technology as a deciding factor for accepting a job offer, meaning that businesses must keep their technological capacity up to date if they want to capitalize on these digital natives’ skills.

Millennials see their career trajectories as an evolving conversation with employers.

In the past, US manufacturing laborers often held lifelong or multi-decade tenure at a single firm, such as General Motors or 3M. For Millennials, that’s increasingly rare—a Gallup study found that they change jobs approximately three times as often as members of other generations and that nearly half of Millennial employees don’t see themselves staying at their job for another year.

The new reality is that younger workers are unlikely to remain at a job that doesn’t offer them new challenges and opportunities. For many of these workers, it’s all about personal development and the pursuit of a more fulfilling life that allows them to use their talents in the places where they’ll make the most difference.

Manufacturing employers who want to attract and retain Millennial talent will need a renewed commitment to fostering mutual loyalty between management and employees. Creating a welcoming and diverse workplace culture, providing generous health insurance and PTO, and offering opportunities for career advancement are all important steps for building a Millennial-friendly manufacturing workplace.

Millennials are bringing back the unionized workplace.

In the 21st century, the power of American manufacturing labor unions has fallen substantially from the early- and mid-20th century peak, but Millennial workers are showing an increasing interest in returning unions to their former place of pride. In a 2016 Pew Research study, three-quarters of surveyed individuals ages 18-29 had a positive view of labor unions, and the head of the AFL-CIO reported that 75% of the union’s new members in 2017 were under the age of 35.

It won’t be an easy fight to bring unions back to manufacturing. In many US states, the legal climate has become unfriendly to organized labor. In addition, the higher-income, tech-focused jobs that represent the biggest growth in manufacturing have traditionally been more difficult to unionize. With skilled professionals such as nurses now unionizing in many states, it’s certainly possible that a comeback in organizing might be on the horizon.

As Millennials begin their careers in earnest, they’re entering an uncertain world that’s fraught with numerous challenges, but also ripe with many opportunities. Fortunately, it increasingly appears that this generation is prepared to meet the challenges and help bring manufacturing into a new era.

Mark Broadly is a freelance journalist.