Manufacturers, Welcome to the Digital Age

Lawrence Buirse

In the 1960s, manufacturing accounted for more than 50 percent of the American economy. From producing goods shipped throughout the world to building our infrastructure, manufacturing was respected as a bedrock of strength and a catalyst for our country’s past, current, and future economic development.

That stronghold began to fall by the end of the 1980s, as manufacturing only accounted for 39 percent of the American economy. By the 2000s, manufacturing’s impact plummeted to the single digits, accounting for less than nine percent of the national economy. What caused this drop, and what will fuel manufacturing’s rebirth?

The answer may surprise you.

Innovation has long been viewed as a major player in the decline of this important American industry. The advent of automation reduced the need for manual labor. Globalization and outsourcing became common terms in the industry, as factories closed their doors to set up shops abroad and left a once thriving workforce drastically reduced.

Ironically, it is also innovation that has launched the rebirth of manufacturing. Using advanced technology to manufacture products in the United States is now not only a viable option, but manufacturing production on a domestic scale is expected to rise in coming years.

This growth will require a highly skilled workforce, which is the source of the industry’s current problem. Where do manufacturers find a workforce with the right skills to manage the upcoming boom in manufacturing production? Older, experienced industry workers are approaching retirement – an anticipated exodus that will leave a huge void for manufacturers to fill if they cannot attract new workers.

American society has changed dramatically since the heyday of manufacturing, and public perception of the manufacturing industry has changed with it. While today’s manufacturers leverage ground-breaking technology and automated systems, many still believe that jobs in this industry are tedious and a dead end. Convincing a millennial to consider a career in manufacturing can prove challenging, and manufacturers must think outside the box to attract today's talent pool and prepare for the industry demands of tomorrow.

So how does today’s manufacturing industry replenish its workforce and meet future production needs?

1.    Use innovation to attract younger applicants.

Creating a talent pipeline that caters to contemporary manufacturing needs while appealing to the wants and desires of a new workforce requires progressive thinking and advanced tools. To reach a generation that has grown up with technology, employers must deploy tools and tactics to meet them where they are, such as engaging candidates on social media platforms.

The forward-thinking manufacturing recruiter will adopt the attitude that tradition is the enemy of progress, with methods in place to support that stance. To get the next wave of workers in the door, manufacturers must show them that conventional hiring tactics are no longer their normal mode of operation. This will send a resounding message to job seekers that the manufacturing industry is a hub for advanced thinkers who thrive on next-generation tech and want to stake their claim in the journey to build a better tomorrow.

2.    Regain confidence in the community.

One way to bridge the gap between today’s manufacturing industry and its potential workforce while improving the industry’s perception is by engaging the community. This could include outreach initiatives such as:

  • Facility tours that promote modern manufacturing technology
  • Community workshops at local libraries or recreation centers that reintroduce the industry to
  • Virtual and social media events that resonate with people of all ages
  • Volunteer activities that promote a sense of connection in neighboring communities

3.    Close cross-generational gaps by investing from within.

While advances in industry technology may have seasoned employees feeling their days are numbered, companies should embrace the value they bring and reassure employees who fear their best days on the job are in the rear-view mirror. Senior team members play an integral role in telling the story of the industry’s evolution and guiding new employees. Their knowledge and experience make them strong assets in the workforce.

Manufacturers must leverage these experienced workers to mentor and steer the interest of the next wave of workers. Companies must create a culture that fosters inclusion by educating these employees about the technological advances of their field, which sends the message that they are considered essential to strategic, long-term company goals, rather than a class of employees on their farewell tour.

4.    Partner with educational institutions to introduce the new manufacturing industry to tomorrow’s workforce.

Manufacturers and educational institutions must partner to engage the next generation of manufacturing workers. Industry innovations may be unrecognizable to workers of yesteryear, and many of these highly technical skills require specialized training. When manufacturers provide training modules in the form of vocational or technical training courses for secondary and post-secondary students, they are opening their industry to a generation of tech-savvy prospects. Hands-on experience in manufacturing would give students a great advantage when one considers the growing number of tech-heavy, specialized positions in the industry.

Many industry leaders have embraced this concept by implementing training programs at local high schools and community colleges. Other manufacturers work with government agencies, nonprofits, and career assistance organizations to establish apprenticeships and certification programs that enhance manufacturing skills and knowledge while equipping students to immediately join their workforce upon completion.

Not many industries can make the claim that they are coming full circle quite like manufacturing. The historical irony – being shaped and reshaped by technology – of the industry tells only part of a bigger story described as manufacturing’s third industrial revolution. An industry that nearly met its demise thanks to automation and innovation now thrives on the same concepts. But this new age of manufacturing calls for a new set of skilled workers to power the change. For the industry to continue its transformation and adapt to the new digital age, it must address the skills gap that exists. To do so, manufacturers must address the underlying issues that exist in the current workforce while devising methods to secure the workforce of tomorrow. The industry must adopt strategies that foster inclusion for tenured employees, use modern communication tools and tactics to connect to a younger pool of potential applicants, establish relationships within manufacturing communities, and market the industry to institutions and organizations equipped to empower the next wave of professionals through specialized training programs. New processes will dictate how the industry operates in the future and how manufacturers bridge the existing skills gap and empower their most valuable asset: their workforce.