Manufacturing & Generation Y: A Matter of Perception

Take a moment to listen to the voices in the industry:

“Our young people today don’t want to work hard.”

“They are not interested in a manufacturing job.”

“They are lazy and don’t go the extra mile.”

“They have no drive and just want to have fun.”

“They have everything and don’t see the need to work.”

“They don’t want to listen.”

“They think they know everything better.”

“They strive for better and bigger things.”

“If they don’t like something, they may not come back tomorrow.”

The way we speak can be powerful. This sounds to me like a self-fulfilling prophecy. So let me see if I can put a different spin on it.

Our Generation Y has grown up in a world in which their parents try to take away the contrast of life. If you never experience difficult times, how will you be able to appreciate the good times? Are our young people at fault, or should parents be held accountable for that? Access to information is right at their fingertips. Sadly, everyone is seeking immediate gratification, but didn’t they learn this from the older generation? “Everything is short-term. Today is everything.” That mentality drives the behavior: Get it now, you deserve it. Focus on today. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

Is it possible that today’s young people have seen the frustration that their parents went through, and they have consciously decided that their lives will be different? They aspire for lives in which they have more freedom and greater influence in the work they do. They are challenged by the impossible, and they are interested in exploring and doing what hasn’t been done before. Our young people are no better or worse than we used to be; they are just a different generation.

Parents, on the other hand, have either worked in the industry or know people who have worked there, and want their children to have a better life than they had. Eighty percent of the people I interviewed for my book told me that they wouldn’t want their own children to work in manufacturing. What does that tell you?

In general, a job in manufacturing seems to carry the same prestige as that of a garbage collector. We all know that garbage collection is necessary, but it’s not a job that we would persuade our own children to consider. This means that most parents don’t offer their children any encouragement to get into this industry. They look at their own history and experience and can’t imagine a better future in manufacturing going forward.

It’s an unfortunate truth, but I notice a tremendous lack of respect for people in most manufacturing environments. The industrial age mindset is still dominant, and people are treated as bodies and not as minds. This certainly won’t work for our younger generation. If you want to be relevant as a manufacturer tomorrow, you will have to change, especially since our loyal baby boomers have now started to retire. Today’s youths are interested in high-profile, attractive jobs, and we have not done a great job selling manufacturing in that context. Many children have fun building or repairing things. They enjoy being hands-on, creating something from the simplest things. They have wonderful imaginations and are usually innately talented and creative. The leading-edge technology used in manufacturing will certainly attract young people, but only if they are made aware of it.

We have to rebrand the manufacturing industry as the next cool career to get into. However, talking about making it cool and sexy is not enough. We need to show that our industry is interesting, challenging, motivating and full of opportunities for growth. We have to take action.

From my perspective as a woman, being sexy embodies getting attention, demonstrating confidence and providing attraction. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Companies that are able to discover their own element of sexiness and can communicate what they stand for will easily attract talent, skill and young people. Instead of complaining about our unreliable new generation, let’s step for a moment into their shoes and look at this challenge from a completely different angle. Perhaps we can shift from the blame and get into the game by addressing these questions:

• How do you develop a better understanding for Generation Y to be able to recognize what’s important for them?

• Why would a young person want to work for you?

• How do you initiate collaborations with academia?

• Have you created an environment of respect in which people are appreciated and new ideas are encouraged?

• What does the physical work environment look like? Is it clean? Is it organized? Is it safe and healthy?

• How do you encourage great workplace behaviors?

• What minor changes could be made to make a great first impression when someone walks through your door?

• How do you inspire young people to develop a passion for excellence?

• How do you instill a sense of national pride in being part of designing, developing and producing a product in our country?

• Is your company website new, innovative and appealing?

• Do you think your workforce promotes its workplace to others?

• Do you showcase people instead of machinery, tools and equipment on your website and promotional material?

• When visitors walk through your plant, do they feel the great energy of your workforce or do they see a bunch of zombies walking around?

• Are you excited and passionate about your organization and is your enthusiasm contagious?

• Can you look beyond a resume and see more in a young person than he or she can see in themselves? Can you see their potential?

• Are you ready and willing to compensate our youth so that they are able to make a decent living?

• Do you foster an environment of growth and development?

• Do you allow your employees to learn from their mistakes?

• What is the tone of communication within your organization? Is it all about issues and problems, or is it about opportunities?

To provide an example, an entry-level position at Volkswagen requires specific education and training. On its website, Volkswagen promotes that it is willing to invest in people by providing them with the education and training they need to succeed at the company. Volkswagen’s prerequisite is that it looks for young people who want to be the best at what they do and who are able to demonstrate self-confidence and a team-oriented attitude. Volkswagen’s unique approach to attracting and retaining outstanding employees is a key factor in its overall success.

Now you may say, “We are not Volkswagen.” You are right. Volkswagen didn’t become an overnight sensation. It has taken years. So what is the lesson? It’s about being resourceful and willing to become a little bit better each and every day. Rather than accepting the status quo and settling for mediocrity, start living and breathing a mindset of excellence.

It’s my intent to encourage you to focus on circumstances that are well within your control. If we don’t make manufacturing more attractive to today’s youth, we will lose this potential labor pool to another sector or, worse, to another country.

This article was published in the Association of Manufacturing Excellence’s Target magazine

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