How Will We Inspire the Next Generation of Manufacturing Leaders?

Posted by IMEC on Dec 9, 2021 12:02:58 PM

The tables have turned.

With supply chain disruptions in nearly every industry, manufacturing has raced from an industrial age phenomenon to the forefront in the media and minds of many consumers. Words like “essential” describe makers. The topic of reshoring is widespread. Advanced technology is reconfiguring the factory floor. With all this, the pandemic’s lasting effects on the economy, and the world of work, has accelerated an urgent need for manufacturers to attract and retain people.  

Yet, it’s no secret: a workforce shortage exists among manufacturers. A study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, the research arm for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), predicts 2.1 unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030 at a potential cost of $1 trillion. 

The Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC) is constantly evaluating strategies to solve the workforce crisis. To explore this topic more in-depth, we decided to tap the brain trust of those in our state who are walking the talk,building great manufacturing companies that put people first.

Meet IMEC board members Ashley S. H. Moy, CEO and chairwoman of Cast21; Jeff Taylor, president and CEO of Crafts Technology; and Karen Watson, CEO of International Filter Manufacturing Corporation.

We gathered virtually to talk about the road to today and why the next generation of manufacturing leaders is so pivotal.

“We went from an agrarian society a hundred years ago until after the industrial revolution,” said Taylor. “We’re making things, we’re manufacturing things. The younger generation or the next generation were disenfranchised with manufacturing. We need people to look back at these things. We’ve lost touch with how it’s made. The next generation is important.”

Watson concurred, pointing out that an entire generation’s definition of a “good job” was not necessarily working in a factory, but rather white-collar employment. “It is important this next generation who comes to the table,” she says, “to solve problems, and that means inventing and creating. We got a little comfortable and self-assured with what we were making that we lost visibility.”

She points out phrases like “It’s too old,” “It takes too long,” or “It’s too dirty” shaped the perception of manufacturing for many people.

“Manufacturing vs. office job,” Watson shares. “I remember the conversations. Get a good job became synonymous with professionals and initials behind them. We lost track and value in understanding that a good job could be a manufacturing job.”

Looking over our shoulder certainly brings us to this moment. Now, how do we find a way forward? Where will the next generation of manufacturing leaders come from? What will they need to succeed?

Moy points to something beyond manufacturing itself. She points to mission. “The next generation needs to be motivated by the mission of their work. They need to feel it is meaningful. It’s not that we don’t want to work. The marketing doesn’t make sense with my generation.”

Once again, just as Watson pointed out with how manufacturing was described, Moy underscores words matter. “At Cast21, we don’t call it manufacturing, we call it designer, maker, technician – focusing on the creativity that goes on. What does it mean to be an engineer?”

Taylor adds “inventive, creative, and problem-solver” to Moy’s list.

The path to manufacturing comes by way of vocational training, apprenticeships, engineering, or industrial degrees, working in a family-owned business, proximity to a job, and even having friends who work at a company. Will these pathways remain or change in the future? 

The answer may differ from the past. Watson sees manufacturing drawing from, well, everywhere. “We have to think non-traditionally. In my company . . . they were in different fields, in professional roles who wanted to get their hands into some things. We had this phenomenon growing up. My dad was a mechanic. I used to fix things, change tires. I grew up thinking a good job was a professional job. Now you have people coming back in. People want to feel like ‘I want to put my hands in something and see a widget designed.’ People are going to want to come out of working from home in COVID, people hungry for socialization.”

Taylor sees more diversity depicting the future manufacturing workforce. “They are going to look like who’s on this call: young, female, minorities. One decade ago, we put an ad out, maybe sometimes there’s a girl or a minority who applies, but you know who comes back for the jobs? The guys. They look like me. This year, I’ve hired four women. They’re getting the message. It’s not just for men.”

Many of the workers in manufacturing are boomeranging from entrepreneurial endeavors perfectly aligned with manufacturing. Moy says many millennials have done “millennial things” like starting businesses as content creators, laser cutters, working on CDCs, only to find that working for yourself is not as freeing as they thought. She sees “self-entrepreneur” on many resumes. Yet, they have the skills to be successful makers.

There are no easy answers to filling the seats in manufacturing, but this crew remains energized about leaping beyond just “getting more employees” and, rather, inspiring people to enter the field of creating.

Moy points out the need to re-market manufacturing to governmental officials, naysayers, and potential candidates while Watson says language is, ultimately, very important. “People weren’t seeing this as creative: solution finders, needs providers. It was back to that ‘good’ job and not embracing the other side of it.”

She feels the pandemic introduced fear, which released risk-taking, inspiring many people to reevaluate career options. “Fear came from people not wanting to die. Fear worked on both sides. People started looking at risk-taking and being thoughtful about what they wanted to do and their purpose. ‘What do I really like to do?’ It opened up opportunities. Spoke to them, in certain strengths they had.”

To Karen’s point,” says Taylor, “robotics and automation. Now, I’m like three people out and all the production is messed up.” He says the pandemic and the labor shortage has forced the question: How do I keep production running? “My robots are not going to get COVID. As for upskilling, people are going to get automated out of a job, but they can learn how to program robots.”

Listening to what people really need as employees is key. Taylor points to flexibility as one of the most important things people are looking for.

“We grew up in an autocratic family,” he says. “I don’t think millennials are doing that. We can be flexible. It’s an easy word to use in a transient workforce. Employees, people in general, have more choices and they are demanding it now. They’re not asking for it. It’s like we’re moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” He says flexibility can take different forms, like what time people take breaks, for example.

Moy concurs. “Yes on flexibility. One of the other things to attract and keep talent . . . is to give people a deeper sense of belonging. I plan a monthly after-work gathering, and it starts when the work is done. Can you celebrate your staff? It’s far less costly to do this, and the party starts when you finish your work. You can open it up to guests and family. It worked in my days of academia. I learned this from my lab.”

Celebrating achievements is another example. When something gets tripped up in the supply chain or a customer needs something stat, triggering a need to work more hours, a reward as a team can go a long way. 

For many rural-based manufacturers, location is a factor in the workforce crisis. There are two sides: workers are oftentimes committed and dependable, but there may be a smaller applicant pool. “We need an engineer, but people don’t want to live in Litchfield, Illinois,” said Watson. “Does our company have a physical presence in other areas, and do we expand where we do business that might draw people more? We’re close to St. Louis. I market more to Missouri than the towns around Lichfield.” She points out that the salary component only goes so far.

As for final advice from our panel of manufacturing thought leaders, Watson advises to “do something.” “Whatever you’re thinking about business, that’s what your business will be. Do something to drive the results you want to get.”

Moy circles back to purpose. “Workers are having a moment and expecting a lot from their employers. Don’t be afraid of change, it’s the only constant we have. 

Taylor says, “I’d like to think we’re inventive, creative. That could be true. But the fact of the matter is to get in front of it or get behind it. There’s no glory in getting behind it. If they don’t see you being creative and you want to attract investors, grow or whatever, you have to be in front of it. Take it at its most basic face value and do something about it and become part of the solution. If you’re not, you’re on the sidelines, and it will be evidenced by progress and safety record.”

Unlike many pundits, these leaders feel the opportunities are many: from re-marketing manufacturing, to using more creative language, to giving people a deeper sense of purpose and belonging, to taking definitive action and reevaluating where you expand locations.

Perhaps the future workforce in manufacturing comes down to the world we show people. If so, the question might be just that: what is the story we are telling about manufacturing?

There are many people in the world who can live their best life as a maker. Now, all we have to do is show them the “why.”



Written by IMEC

Topics: IMEC 25 Years

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