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Key to Closing Manufacturing Skills Gap? Optimistic Millennials.

Vicki Holt
By Vicki Holt CEO, Proto Labs

If you’re not experiencing the manufacturing skills shortage firsthand, you’ve likely heard the projections: Up to 2 million of the 3.5 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled in the next 10 years.

What’s not discussed enough, however, are the outdated perceptions of manufacturing that are helping contribute to the skills shortage. Many people still perceive manufacturing jobs as they did several decades ago—manual work conducted on long assembly lines in dirty production environments.

As those of us in the industry know, these perceptions don’t square up with reality. Technology careers are flourishing in manufacturing. Workers are spending more time in front of computer screens and less time around loud machines. And the very concept of manufacturing is changing, driven by advancements in areas like 3D printing, robotics and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Still, while most people may hold antiquated views of manufacturing, we are beginning to see a shift in perceptions among today’s youngest workers.

The Millennial Factor

A 2016 study conducted by Opinion Research Corporation and commissioned by Proto Labs surveyed more than 1000 US adults about their views of manufacturing careers. It found that:

Less than 3 in 10 adults (29%) think of manufacturing as a high-tech career choice

Less than one-third (31%) think manufacturing careers are high paying

Only 10% associate a software developer in front of a computer screen with today’s manufacturing jobs

Fortunately, a deeper look at the findings reveal that perceptions are changing among millennials.

For example, 37% of millennials think of manufacturing as being a high-tech career choice, which is significantly more than baby boomers (23%). Also, 49% of millennials believe engineering skills are needed in today’s manufacturing careers, compared with 41% of baby boomers.

This could be why almost half of millennials (47%) think there will be enough qualified professionals to fill the manufacturing industry’s job demands in the next 10 years. That’s a far more optimistic view than the 35% of gen Xers and baby boomers who think the demand will be met.

Much Work Remains

Perceptions about manufacturing careers are improving, but our industry still has much work ahead of us if we want to fill the talent supply.

As manufacturers, we should be promoting STEM education to get more students on the path to a career in today’s manufacturing landscape. And they should be engaging millennials in high school and college about the high-tech job opportunities that await them in our industry. GE did just this with its “digital industrial” ad campaign, which showcased fresh-faced millennials who are writing code and building world-changing machines that can communicate digitally.

But engagement and awareness are only part of the solution. Manufacturers also must consider re-examining how they recruit and retain skilled talent.

As Deloitte points out, manufacturers should look to new sources of talent, such as veterans and the long-term unemployed. The firm also makes the case for using training and development to not only meet business goals but also improve employee retention.

Manufacturers also should reach out to groups who are underrepresented in manufacturing. Women, for example, constitute almost half the US labor force but make up only 27% of manufacturing employees.

Win the War of Perceptions

Manufacturing can compete with any other industry not only on the high-tech “cool” factor, but also on pay. In fact, positions like software engineer earn six-figure wages in multiple manufacturing sectors.

Unfortunately, this fact, like every other aspect of modern manufacturing careers, hardly matters if it’s not well known outside our industry.

As the saying goes, perception is everything. Let’s build on the progress we’re making with millennials so that even more workers, and future generations, can learn what we already know: It’s an exciting and rewarding time to be working in manufacturing.

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