Manufacturing’s Future Lies with the Millennials

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Nov 14 2014 |
Millennials, photographed in their (stereotypical) natural state. | Photo by Erin Nekervis via Flickr

New research shows manufacturers aren’t doing enough to recruit the generation.

There’s been a whole lot said about millennials.

They’re narcissistic. They’re out to change the world. They’re detached from modern institutions. They’re misunderstood. They’re over-analyzed.

Well, here’s one more thing to add to that list: Millennials are the future.

O.K., that was a little glib. But new research shows that millennials are indeed the future of manufacturing — and that future is in jeopardy because not enough is being done to recruit them.

ThomasNet released its Industry Market Barometer (IMB) survey on manufacturing today, and a lot of the news was pretty optimistic. Researchers found that more North American companies are hiring, increasing production capacity and anticipating future growth. About 63 percent of the product and custom manufacturers surveyed expect growth by the end of 2014 — and 52 percent say they’ll add staff in the next several months.

That’s definitely good news, considering manufacturing job growth has lagged since the Great Recession. But the IMB survey also cautioned that not enough is being done to prepare for what happens when the Baby Boomer generation retires in full force over the next decade.

The IMB notes that there’s a “ticking biological clock” in manufacturing — nearly half of this year’s survey respondents were over 55. And 38 percent of respondents plan to retire sometime in the next 10 years… and have little or no idea who will replace them.

That’s where millennials come in, according to the IMB. The young generation still has the time and energy to learn the business, and will be ready to take the helm when the Baby Boomers decide to hang up their hats:

For an industry that values specialized training and experience, this generation represents a goldmine of opportunity as most Millennials are technology-savvy. Manufacturing is increasingly headed towards digitization and very much reliant on this skillset. Whether changing careers or just entering the workforce, they can take the time to learn the business before their predecessors retire. Yet, most manufacturers (62 percent) say Millennials represent a small fraction of their workforce, and eight out of ten (81 percent) have no explicit plans to increase these numbers.

Some manufacturers are listening, the IMB notes, by using apprenticeship programs to teach young workers skilled trades such as machining, production, assembly and welding. But researchers also caution that “until misunderstandings on both sides are erased, the manufacturing community won’t be able to fully participate” in these programs.

There’s a lot that can be done to recruit more young people to manufacturing, from apprenticeship programs to partnerships between labor and business to a variety of efforts being led by community colleges (which Vice President Joe Biden last week called “the best kept secret in America”).

Here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), we believe that many young people are interested in manufacturing, and if given the opportunity, they will jump at the chance to receive training. It’s up to all of us to make sure those opportunities exist — so that American manufacturing can grow and the next generation of Americans can find their own success.