What does the next manufacturing workforce think about industry?

Sept. 16, 2021
New research shows that perceptions about industrial work are moving in the right direction, but will that be enough to keep Gen Z interested?

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: 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 are 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 repondents 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 that 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 has hired more people during the pandemic than it 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: We’ve heard that reliability teams are often the ones who can most afford the time to drive digital initiatives. But digital technologies and advanced technologies are changing all three of those kinds 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 back-end 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 toward 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 of these roles around plant and efficiency and maintenance, and the role of humans and technologies together, has really been highlighted.

PS: Let me ask you a question about Gen Z in particular. What’s your understanding of some of those key factors that would motivate workers, especially Gen Z, to stay in manufacturing and industry once they get there?

LW: 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.

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 have an 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.

This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

Sponsored Recommendations

Arc Flash Prevention: What You Need to Know

March 28, 2024
Download to learn: how an arc flash forms and common causes, safety recommendations to help prevent arc flash exposure (including the use of lockout tagout and energy isolating...

Reduce engineering time by 50%

March 28, 2024
Learn how smart value chain applications are made possible by moving from manually-intensive CAD-based drafting packages to modern CAE software.

Filter Monitoring with Rittal's Blue e Air Conditioner

March 28, 2024
Steve Sullivan, Training Supervisor for Rittal North America, provides an overview of the filter monitoring capabilities of the Blue e line of industrial air conditioners.

Limitations of MERV Ratings for Dust Collector Filters

Feb. 23, 2024
It can be complicated and confusing to select the safest and most efficient dust collector filters for your facility. For the HVAC industry, MERV ratings are king. But MERV ratings...