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Help Wanted: Creative Thinkers and Problem-Solvers Needed

Why are manufacturers so desperate to recruit non-traditional applicants?

Manufacturing Day, held the first Friday in October, is coming before you know it. Providing a good opportunity for those in the industry (and those on the outside looking in), Manufacturing Day is a time to pause and re-think some common misconceptions surrounding the industry. With the dramatic rate of change that has hit manufacturing in the last decade, some old truisms have turned to outright myths. Those misnomers can get in the way of manufacturing’s much-needed reinvention and recruitment efforts.

A major disconnect has evolved around the topic of education and the skills needed for manufacturing jobs. It’s an age-old rule that kids who take “shop classes” go into blue collar jobs. No matter what euphemisms modern educators use to label those classes, from technical education to applied sciences, everyone knows these are the classes for the students who are “hands on” learners and would rather re-build a Volkswagen transmission than dissect a Shakespeare sonnet. And, there’s nothing wrong with that.

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In this age of digitalization, the pace of change in manufacturing is head-spinning. Neither educators nor manufacturers have kept up with documenting and actively recruiting the new skills and the type of experience an entry level hire in manufacturing should possess. Many simply may remember the good ol’ days: the golden era of manufacturing in the post-war years, when 30% of all U.S. jobs were in manufacturing. A strong back, the ability to follow directions, and a “show-up-everyday” attitude were the top requirements.

Those days included the ritual of entering an apprenticeship program at 18. Next was working up to earning a coveted white foreman’s hard hat. Then, you’d train the next crop of apprentices while you coasted to retirement with a hefty pension. Manufacturing was good for bread winners, their families, and communities.

While it lasted, anyway. In recent decades, the plight of communities where the local plant was virtually the only employer has been well-documented. When the plant flourishes, so does the town. When the plant closes, disaster. Detroit’s tragic decline from the fourth largest city in the United States to a bankrupt one with $18 billion in debt and a decaying infrastructure has become infamous.

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Many cities in America’s Rust Belt have similar stories. The heartaches of layoffs, plant closings, slashed benefits, and lost pensions have contributed to inflamed perceptions, distorted by disappointment. No wonder that public opinion about manufacturing has drastically eroded in the last decade, making recruiting a new workforce challenging. A recent study conducted by Deloitte and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) found that only 37% of respondents indicated they would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.

Manufacturing Day, started in 2012 by the NAM, was designed to counteract those misconceptions and encourage young people to once again consider jobs in manufacturing. The hope is that opening doors for plant tours and generating media attention on the many positive aspects of the industry will help resolve misconceptions and the general population’s lackluster confidence in U.S. manufacturing.

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Manufacturers must go beyond casting a positive light on its high-tech revival and re-energized global competitive stature, however. They must also generate faith in the future and confidence that jobs will be lasting. They must also attract an entirely new type of worker. The unskilled manual labor jobs may be gone, but other highly skilled positions are going unfilled.

Experts predict that over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed, and two million are expected to go unfilled. Misconceptions are only part of the equation; lack of available skilled labor is also a factor. Design engineers, data scientists, and IT professionals—from skilled network designers to experts in cybersecurity, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, and predictive analytics—are needed.

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As future-focused, tech-savvy manufacturers turn to digitalization and other disruptive technologies as a strategy for remaining competitive, the right workforce becomes essential. Digitalization means new, out-of-the-box thinking that companies like Uber, Netflix, and Travelocity have employed in order to invent totally new ways of approaching a need and generating revenue. To build these strategies, manufacturers need creative thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators, team builders, inspiring innovators, and motivating leaders.

They also need the storytellers and artists—the classic liberal arts students who, traditionally, would have never taken a single shop class or remotely considered a career in manufacturing. These young, creative individuals may be the future of manufacturing. They may be the start of a new generation of workers and traditions, new “brotherhoods” of crews who bond over their jobs and their unique role in redefining manufacturing in America.

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As Manufacturing Day rolls around on October 6th, keep in mind this is the new manufacturing: new jobs, new faces. Welcome those newcomers. Show them the ropes. They are important to the new manufacturing era—the one just around the corner.

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