How to get Gen Z interested in a career in manufacturing

Sept. 16, 2021
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Lawrence Whittle shares his thoughts on generational attitudes toward the manufacturing industry.

With an expected 2.1 million unfilled U.S. manufacturing jobs by 2030, resulting in a potential negative impact to the economy of more than $1 trillion, the industry’s ability to attract and retain younger workers is an urgent issue. All eyes are on Generation Z, the generation of young adults who are just starting to make an impact in the workplace. What might attract them to industrial jobs? What motivates them? And what might make them stay?

A research study of 1,000 U.S. respondents aged 18-24 was conducted in June by Parsable, and found that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on Gen Z’s perception of manufacturing. For example, more than half of respondents (54%) said they had not considered frontline manufacturing as a potential career before the pandemic; of those, 24% are now open to exploring it.

Lawrence Whittle is the CEO of Parsable, and has been extensively involved in the manufacturing technology space throughout his 25-year career. Plant Services spoke with Whittle about findings from the Parsable study, and his thoughts on generational attitudes toward industry.

PS: Can you tell us about yourself, Lawrence, and your work since joining Parsable?

LW: Absolutely, great to be on the podcast. My name's Lawrence Whittle. I'm the CEO of Parsable, as you can probably hear, originally from the UK. I left London 30 years ago and I've been based in California for the last 15 years. Throughout my 25-year career, I've been extensively involved in the manufacturing technology space. I started my career working with manufacturing companies, especially in the process industry, and I joined Parsable just over four years ago as we started to get our ideas put together around transforming the lives of frontline workers. We've been driving that mission since 2016 in terms of when our product first went to market, and built a really interesting business in terms of providing modern digital tools to frontline workers.

PS: Great, and we're speaking today because of a research study that you and your team did specifically focusing on perceptions by Gen Z of manufacturing. And some of the data points are really fascinating. So, I thank you for being on the podcast to talk about what you're seeing in the survey. The first question I have for you is that for some time now this sector of industry, maintenance and reliability, we've been trying to drive efforts to change the perception of manufacturing among both younger workers and their parents. Your study was focused on 18- to 24-year-olds, and suggests that we're starting to turn the corner on that perception, at least on having a favorable view of manufacturing if not industrial jobs themselves. Can you tell us more about how the study came together, and your thoughts about the influence the pandemic has had on these kinds of perceptions?

LW: I think this is to some extent a well understood challenge. We've been talking about the “gray tsunami” or the labor challenges, not just domestically, here in North America, this is actually a global issue. In addition to being the CEO of Parsable, I'm an active member of the World Economic Forum in their advanced manufacturing group. Before the pandemic, we were already seeing that the future of work was changing, first of all because technology was becoming more and more pervasive around digital and the concept of Industry 4.0, but also the dynamic change in the workforce.

Obviously, as the pandemic hit, these workforce challenges became even more apparent because the acceleration of Baby Boomers retiring, lower shift patterns, and lower numbers of workers have put a lot of stress on the system. There was a lot of concern pre-pandemic, and I actually thought for many years that we had an existential risk growing, which was, by 2030, there's expected to be two million jobs unfulfilled in this space with the Baby Boomers retiring. So, we thought it was time to re-check in with the Generation Zs to see if the perception had changed.

We really wanted to understand not just about perceptions but also how those perceptions have changed. We all have a perception that earlier career people do not have an interest in frontline work, industrial work. My father used to wear a hardhat, and I spent most of my career around the manufacturing space. I have Millennials in my house and I have a Gen Z in my house, but I encourage them to think about manufacturing because people think it's noisy, dirty, when in fact it's far from the truth. These are increasingly tech-enabled jobs.

We did this survey to really get a primary pulse of a large number of people in that 18-to-24 group. It's been something that people have been thinking about a lot during the pandemic. You see what the National Association of Manufacturers has been doing. I mentioned the World Economic Forum. We launched a community called the New Generation Industrial Leaders. And I think this pandemic really highlights the criticality of frontline workers. And therefore, let's see if the perception of frontline work has equally been changed, because I think the world has realized that we wouldn't be eating or drinking or driving if it weren’t for frontline workers in these important manufacturing and maintenance roles.

PS: These perceptions, based on the survey results, seem to be changing. Were you surprised by the fact that so many of the respondents had a favorable view now of manufacturing?

LW: I think I was surprised but not totally surprised, because over the last 18 months I've seen an increasing recognition of the need to try and change the perception. So, I was hopeful, but still a little bit surprised, and I think some of the perceptions for example around salaries was an interesting one, because a lot of people have felt that the salary levels, the average salary levels for the domestic market here in the U.S., would be even less in manufacturing. I think the reality is that we found that it's higher than the national average, which is good and I think there was a recognition from earlier career people that, actually, these were not necessarily low-paid entry-level positions. They were becoming increasingly competitive.

I think the other misconception, which was actually noted, which is that it may have been a low-skilled or manual job, but I think there's a gradual recognition which is changing around the skillsets and type of labor required which is increasingly tech enabled. I was talking to someone this morning about Amazon and people are very, very aware of the Amazon distribution centers and ecommerce. People's perception is that warehouses are becoming automated and there's automated guided vehicles, but Amazon have hired more people during the pandemic than they actually deployed robots. So, I think there's also this perception that jobs are going away. No, they're not going away, they're changing. So those are two that I was very, very positive about.

PS: It's interesting too. We've heard that, at least in our sector of maintenance and reliability, and some operations, that maintenance workers might not be the ones who are always driving digital initiatives, and that the reliability teams are the ones who can most afford the time to drive new roles. But digital technologies and advanced technologies are changing all three of those kind of roles – maintenance, operations, and reliability.

LW: I think there's been technology entering past the industrial world over the last couple of decades. This was started with backend ELP or asset maintenance systems. And they were predominantly around high-level planning.

I think people have increasingly realized that there's a commonality here, which is their dark data. A lot of the areas that are being digitized are areas where there's that six-inch binder or those decades of tacit knowledge, and I think maintenance is an interesting one: these are the classic 30-year veterans that have got unbelievable tacit knowledge. They can also maintain machines with their eyes closed. But as machines have been changing and their own workforce has been changing, I think each of these areas have adopted at different speeds, but now there's sort of a rising tide for everyone. People are starting to see that replacing the six-inch binder and tacit knowledge with modern digital tools can actually touch all areas.

And maintenance, obviously, has become incredibly interesting during the pandemic because with lower shift levels, and the need to keep machines running, the whole importance of maintenance has gone more towards autonomous, meaning in-line maintenance where technology becomes very, very important. I think that's one of the real positive things about the pandemic, and there's not many, which is the recognition of some these roles around plant and efficiency and maintenance, and the role of humans and technologies together, has really been highlighted.

PS: It's been fascinating to watch that happen too. I agree. I've seen that, especially as COVID sickouts continue across the workforce, not just maintenance. As you say, maintenance especially has had to deal with hiccups to normal processes, normal rounds to check the assets. There's been a very strong interest that we've seen in driving towards more automated work order management.

LW: Exactly. And I think the other thing the pandemic has also highlighted is the need to actually cross-train and retrain people, because the worker that may be the quality person is now being asked to do some maintenance and vice versa. There's also this need I think to upskill everyone to be able to almost be Swiss army knives. Where you were a maintenance engineer, now there's an opportunity for you to be more than a maintenance engineer, and vice versa, if you're a quality person, you can actually do other stuff with digital. There's this whole concept to think of autonomous which is using digital to drive the whole process to be more automated, it's not about eliminating humans, it's actually just making sure these tasks are done more systematically. And I think that's really a positive sign out of the pandemic.

PS: Let me ask you a question about Gen Z in particular and how the Gen Z results from your survey might complement a survey that Plant Services has done. When we asked respondents what was important that would keep them to stay in an industrial job we found that, to the whole cross-section of generations, wages and benefits were as important as training and development opportunities. Now in the Gen Z survey that Parsable did, there's a slightly different result in that, at least to the Gen Z respondents, wages and benefits came out firmly on top. What's your understanding of some of those key factors that would motivate workers, maybe especially Gen Z, to stay in manufacturing and industry once they get there?

LW: I'm really looking forward to seeing your survey results because I think the themes are aligned. We did another survey late last year, which was more holistically around frontline workers and their readiness for digital, and obviously this one was more around Gen Zs. We're at a unique time, particularly domestically here in North America, where we've got four generations in the workforce starting from Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials to Gen Z. I think what's occurring is that as these generations are working together, there's an increasing recognition of mutual respect. I think about when we started our business, one of the biggest objections was, "Oh, these 30-year veterans won't use modern digital tools." And I said, "Well, there's a perception that I'm determined to change." And actually, what you find out is that most Baby Boomers do know how to upload a video to Facebook or send a text message to their kids in university. Obviously, the Gen Zs might do it on Instagram and use WhatsApp, but the concept of digital in the personal life is changing.

Listen to the entire interview

So, when we think about what's motivating people to stay, I think there are going to be different views against different generations. When it comes to Millennials and especially Generation Zs, there’s a need to be fulfilled, to be appreciated, and to some extent to be happy. We have several customers that actually monitor the happiness of their frontline workers. And happiness might sound a little bit theoretical, and obviously compensation's important, benefits are important. But I think people also want to be connected, and I think that's why there's a really interesting opportunity, because although the industry is suffering from this demographic shift and people retiring, you've an got opportunity to bring in a newer generation. You just need to change a little bit why they've come to work, things like reskilling, upskilling, feeling that they're part of a very ESG-friendly type of organization on top of salaries and on top of benefits.

So I think it's really about breaking down perceptions of Boomers, and saying, "Now, let's not think about perception. Let's actually understand what really motivates everyone." And certain things might be more important at certain stages of their career but actually it's a rounded set of requirements for all manufacturers to think about this strategically, which I think can really unlock both the Millennials, Generation Zs and, obviously, still retain as many as possible of the Baby Boomers.

PS: I’d like to ask you a question about the perceptions of four-year university grads versus vocational school grads. This data point jumped out as potentially counterintuitive. I think a lot of folks would assume that vocational grads may have a more positive perception or a greater interest in manufacturing careers. But your survey found that 50% of four-year university grads were interested in manufacturing careers versus 43% of recent vocational school grads. I'm curious to know what you thought about those results.

LW: So, this was definitely the biggest surprise for me because I certainly assumed that the difference between vocational education and more of a four-year university education would be maybe even flipped. If you actually look at the data, they are different, but they're not, like, one is 80% and one is 20%. I think what it recognizes actually is that there's potentially an interest within both groups as the access to manufacturing programs becomes more viable.

One of the biggest things I've observed around the world, obviously virtually, but before the pandemic physically, is how each different country and actually how each different state thinks about industrial work. Germany in particular has done a fantastic job, China's done a very good job, Mexico's doing a very good job of making both vocational and university educations very much harmonized around industrial work. I think that I was surprised, but as I sat back and thought about it, my perception was four-year grads versus vocational would be somewhat different. But I think it's a recognition that maybe some people believe that it's low skill manual job and maybe that's vocational whereas university's the other way, but I think that's blending.

So again, it's a positive view because I think maybe the pandemic has explicitly or subliminally impacted both of those communities. And I do think it's one of the biggest opportunities we've got domestically here, is to drive greater and greater curriculums in vocational training because you do not need to have a four-year degree to do a lot of these jobs. Some of these advanced jobs, you don't need a four-year degree. Obviously, it helps, but you can do vocational education if you get the right level of syllabus, and I think that's the other inherent finding, is that maybe that is starting to work into the community.

PS: You reminded me of something my brother-in-law once said. He's a Generation X like I am and he went to a two-year community college for his first two years and then graduated from a four-year university with an engineering degree. And all he ever said was, "Tom, I want to do one of two things. I want to build bridges or build toys." The issue wasn't ever staying in one kind of engineering, he just wanted to go where he would be able to build things. And so, your point about the fact that this isn't a huge difference in response here, you've got 50% versus 43%, there's an overlap. These are folks who really want to build something or work in the area.

LW: That's right, and I think there's also, hopefully, an emerging understanding that the fear of jobs being automated away is probably more of an impact on people that are in desk jobs than actually frontline workers. There's a general understanding about automation or jobs going away, but I think people are gradually realizing it's a lot easier to automate a call center than it is a maintenance engineer. I think that's something which I think almost also may be coming through, is that not only are the jobs becoming more technology enabled but they're probably more sustainable long-term as well, and I think that's another interesting thing.

I'm also a Gen Xer and I've had a passion for manufacturing for a long, long time. Now I can talk to my kids and show them Parsable's modern digital tool and show them that this is actually a pretty interesting role. And by the way you can go into a bank or you could go into a manufacturing company, I think you might find more personal fulfilment and career actually in manufacturing in the future, and I think that's the other thing that might be inherently working its way into the perceptions.

PS: From a hiring perspective, let's get away from the people who responded to the survey and talk about the hiring teams. There's a lot of interest among hiring teams that I've talked to in how to keep Gen Zs and Millennials, and retain good employees. Based on the results of your survey, what should hiring teams be doing differently, if anything, to attract the people who are responding to your survey about manufacturing?

LW: Yeah, so I have very, very, very strong point of view, which I say to executives in manufacturing and in fact all frontline workers, that if you don't put this as a number one priority, you are literally running an existential risk of your business. We've already got here a shortage of labor, it's not going to slow down, and hiring of manufacturing and maintenance teams is lower down the list for the people-functions, as the HR functions are more focused on what used to be called the white-collar workers versus blue-collar workers.

I think there's a real recognition that there's three things that I think that these hiring teams need to do as a result of these surveys. Number one is really partner with educational institutions to help dispel any of these lingering misconceptions, because I think having industrial companies directly working with these education facilities, whether it's universities or vocational colleges, I think can really, really help. So, get into those colleges and really start to proliferate the potential of these jobs. I think partnering with educational institutions is important.

I also think they need to really do a better job of explaining the range of benefits. Not just it's $18 an hour and it might go up to $22; it's got to be salary, growth opportunity, job security, diversity, availability of digital tools. A lot of these things are super important to Gen Zs and actually I would say to increasingly everyone. You've got to make that a part of your pitch: “We do believe in diversity. We do believe in security. We do believe in growth opportunities. And of course, we're also going to pay a competitive salary.” So, I think that's the second thing is think about the range of benefits broader than they currently think today.

And then the third thing is, which is to some extent, why Parsable has been successful with companies, is that technology is super important to all generations. But as you go down the generation stack of Baby Boomers to our generation, you know, I live my life on laptops and my smartphones. You think about Millennials, you think about Gen Zs – that's the only way they've learned. So having technology front and center and making sure that those tools are available to attract and enhance their daily lives I think is important.

So those are the three things. I think it's partner with institutions, it's thinking about the broader spectrum of benefits of why you'd come to work, and then just making sure the technology is front and center to Gen Zs.

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