When I was a kid, I went back and forth between wanting to become a Marine or a doctor. Although on my more adventurous days, I was set to become a rock star or professional wrestler like the ones on TV (I thought they were real). Clearly, my career aspirations were all over the place – but what never even crossed my mind was becoming a manufacturer. After nearly a year of covering the manufacturing software market for Software Advice, I’ve started to wonder why.
In my view, it seems like the twenty-something and younger crowd would sooner build farms on Zynga’s Farmville or plan the next great civilization on Sims City rather than actually make it happen. This doesn’t speak to everyone in my age group, but I certainly don’t have many peers dying to break into the manufacturing industry. We’re a generation that’s obsessed with being cool, and honestly manufacturing doesn’t seem very cool.
There is a caveat, of course, in that the manufacturing of ideas is still highly valued. Everyone is racing to make the next iPhone app or create the next online money mill like GroupOn. But these ideas aren’t really producing a product in the traditional sense. Instead they’re manufacturing a smart service.
It got me thinking – can we make manufacturing cool again? That is, what will it take to make young people seriously consider a career in manufacturing? I believe in order to make manufacturing an appealing career again we’ll need to:
Wash away the negative media images of manufacturing;
Alter the perception that manufacturing is dead in the United States; and,
Re-connect the youth with making things, on their terms.
Manufacturing is still an important economic driver and it can help us turn this recession around. To accomplish this, however, we’ll need more young people go into the business of producing products. Before we explore what’s needed to attract young talent to manufacturing, let’s look at a few things keeping young people from a manufacturing career in the first place.
Manufacturing Has Fallen From Grace
Manufacturing was once revered as a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle. Today, however, it seems like it’s viewed as a dirty job that doesn’t pay very well. Statistics show that although we value the role of manufacturing in our society, few think it’s the right career for them. According to an Area Development report on the 2009 Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing survey, 70 percent of respondents view manufacturing as a top priority for a strong national economy. Tellingly, however, only 17 percent of surveyed participants listed working in manufacturing in their top two career choices.
This is surprising given that the average income for a manufacturing worker is $74,447 – more than $10,000 higher than the national average for non-manufacturing workers. While outsourcing has likely taken a toll on whether young people consider a manufacturing career, I think there are several other factors at play. Here are a few things that I think make matters worse. Few role models are involved in manufacturing. I can’t think of a single popular role model that’s a manufacturer. Most of the role models we see on television and in movies are doctors, lawyers, cops or simply uber-cool tweens. In real life, we seem to admire CEOs of powerful corporations like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Richard Branson. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be like these people, but the lack of well-respected manufacturing figures in our society has a negative impact on our national consciousness. This is a stark contrast to the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter and the mass appeal of images of tough, hard-working factory men that circulated in the heyday of manufacturing. Media stories have pummeled manufacturing. The mainstream media has run an incredible volume of stories about shuttered plants and jobs shipped overseas. If you believe all the hyperbolic language, manufacturing is either dead or dying in this country. To be fair, the last couple of decades haven’t been pretty (understatement) for the industry. But many don’t realize that we’re still the world’s leading manufacturer and account for 21 percent of worldwide production. Furthermore, manufacturing is leading the progress we’ve made toward an economic recovery. Students have lost their connection to building things. A final issue I see at play is the fact that technical curriculum has dropped off the map. As Marc Epstein notes in a great op-ed piece in The Washington Post, the value of manual education in our public schools has been undermined. Manual education once enjoyed a prestigious place in our society. Now it’s viewed as something that’s primarily for students without college prospects. In a consumer-based society that’s already far removed from how things are produced, removing manual education only widens the gap.
Why Should We Care About Pursuing Manufacturing Careers?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of manufacturing to a healthy economy. It’s a great engine of economic growth and has ripple effects in the job market. For instance, each dollar produced in the manufacturing industry adds an additional $1.43 to the overall economy. The same can’t said about services, which adds only $0.70 to the economy for each dollar. Pat Lee of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association summed it nicely:
There are only three ways that a country builds wealth – you make things, you mine things and you grow things. Everything else is ancillary to that. Manufacturing has the best record for add-on jobs. For every job that is created in manufacturing, there are multiple add-on jobs that are created as a result.” – Pat Lee, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association
Beyond the economic effects of manufacturing, the industry is also a great source of innovation. Investments made by the manufacturing industry collectively accounts for two-thirds of our all research and development investments. This ultimately improves both manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors.
If we think the economy is bad now, things would be much worse if the bottom fell out of manufacturing. We simply cannot afford for this to happen, and we should fight to avoid it. In order to prevent manufacturing from slipping further as a skills gap looms and the Baby Boomer generation retires – we need the younger generation to think building stuff is cool again.
How to Make Manufacturing Cool Again
We need a strategic shift in our culture. And that requires completely changing young people’s perceptions about the value of manufacturing – and the career opportunities in the industry. This means reacquainting youth with the process of designing and building products from an early age – and then providing the creative freedom to build those things on their terms. I’d like to share two examples I’ve come across in the industry and suggest a third of my own.
Manufacturing summer camps – A recent New York Times article highlighted an innovative summer camp, called Gadget Camp, where teenagers learn how to build things from concept to creation. Attendees are required to design a product through computer-aided design (CAD) technology and oversee the design to completion. It’s a fun environment where kids are simultaneously exposed to manufacturing and project management, as well as how to build something. According to Lee, whose organization partially funds Gadget Camp, the camps have anywhere from 12 to 20 students. But these efforts need to be scaled up and out across the nation.
Gamification of manufacturing – Gamification is a hot topic in many aspects of business at the moment – one driven by the idea that adding gaming elements to non-gaming activities encourages action and participation. It's a movement that seeks to capitalize on our youth’s obsession with video games as well as our competitive nature. According to Diana Miller and Simon Jacobson’s recent Gartner First Thing Monday Morning newsletter, Invensys has been using 3D gaming technology to teach new hires how to operate oil refinery equipment for the past few years. In the same vein, Siemens recently released Plantville, a program designed to teach manufacturing processes and technologies to young people and new hires. I haven’t played it yet but it’s apparently similar to Farmville – without the productivity loss.
Restore shop classes to our high schools – The elimination of these courses from our school systems has inevitably had a negative impact on the way we view making a living with our hands. We can all learn from building something with our hands because it teaches us a different way to think. And more importantly, hands-on learning through shop classes helps young people move an idea from concept to creation – which is useful regardless of one’s future occupation. Personally, I missed out on any kind of manual education and instead focused intensely on research and writing as a student, which prepared me for my current job. But had I been exposed to different skill sets, I may have at least considered working in manufacturing – or realized it was an even option.
A Final Thought on Creating this Shift
Creating this cultural shift won’t come easily and it won’t solve other systemic problems confronting the manufacturing industry. However, it’s clear that unless we change the perception of manufacturing, the skills gap will only worsen and manufacturing will continue to decline.
It may seem a little strange for a 23 year old to write about why the youth should join manufacturing without being a part of it himself. In my opinion, however, this drives the point home. I could have been an asset to the manufacturing industry had I been exposed to other types of learning and given the opportunity to explore manufacturing careers earlier on.
Instead I was told that I needed to learn how to write, solve math problems and get good grades so I could go to college and avoid making a living with my hands. Because of this, I invested a lot of my own money to put myself through college and started down that career path. In truth, these are the same skills that are needed to be a part of modern manufacturing – and it’s time for Gen Y, and the next Gen, to take manufacturing seriously.
What do you think it will take to overcome the cultural barrier facing manufacturing? Leave me a comment below.