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Don’t Blame the Millennials

Although we talk a lot about the skills gap in industry jobs and how manufacturing might better attract the younger workforce, we might be missing some key factors that created this situation in the first place, a reader reminds us.

Don’t Blame the Millennials
Don’t Blame the Millennials

Millennials get a pretty bad rap, I have to admit. As all range of industries watch their Baby Boomers retire, one after another, people are looking at the up-and-coming generation, wondering how those positions will be filled with the skills needed to get the job done. We hear about Millennials and their relative lack of job loyalty. We hear that they don’t understand what manufacturing is really about; that they don’t want to be involved in something that they assume is dirty or dangerous.

“Quit blaming the Millennials for not wanting to work in the trades,” says Robert Mitchell, who has been working in industrial maintenance for more than 30 years. “Blame the companies that did their level best for about 30 years to convince them and their parents not to bother trying.” He has seen firsthand the damage that has been done by philosophies that largely disregarded the role of maintenance in keeping an operation running.

Mitchell wrote to me in response to my column in the March issue of Automation World, in which I made an offhand remark about young folks not being interested in taking on jobs in manufacturing. I glossed over something quickly that I feel is understood all too well these days: There aren’t enough people to fill the jobs available, and it’s only getting worse. In this case, it was a quick introduction to simulation technology that Honeywell had introduced in large part to overcome those shortcomings in staffing, especially maintenance. But I shouldn’t be so cavalier about it.

The fact is that the topic of how to attract people—especially young people—to industrial jobs is something that comes up a lot around here. We often try to tackle questions around how best to attract new talent through various articles, but we also talk amongst ourselves about what we’re hearing from sources in industry, and ideas we might have to attract the next generation.

We hear constantly about the shortage of employees—forecasts indicating a need for more than 3.5 million manufacturing jobs to be filled in the U.S. alone over the next decade, for example. And so many eyes are turning to the Millennials, who are expected to account for 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025.

Part of the message I’ve been hearing more and more lately is the idea of attracting this new workforce with cool gadgetry like augmented and virtual reality, mobile apps and collaborative robots. Perhaps. But should we be talking more instead about the root causes that got us here in the first place?

Mitchell takes issue with the idea that young people aren’t willing to get involved in industry because, in short, “you are blaming the wrong people and group,” he says.

Joining the workforce in industrial maintenance in the mid-1980s after graduating from college, Mitchell describes his job this way: “Someone walks up to me and says, ‘It’s broken, fix it.’ And ‘it’ can be nearly anything from a vacuum break on a urinal to a mainframe computer to a CNC machine rebuild.”

What U.S. industry is experiencing today, he contends, is directly related to the mentality that began in the 1980s. “During that time, many companies adopted management philosophies like 5S, Six Sigma, etc., etc.,” he says. “Every one of those philosophies had similar views of maintenance, such as: run it till it breaks, then replace it; maintenance departments are overhead and are non-value added; outsource maintenance when possible; lay off maintenance as quickly as possible if layoffs are ‘necessary.’”

This had an effect on the Baby Boomers, who were going through a constant roller coaster of getting hired for a couple years, then laid off, then hired again, then laid off. “I could be two jobs down the road and a couple states over and working with people I had worked with in previous jobs,” Mitchell says. “This is something that had never happened with these trades before. We slogged through this for about 20+ years of our careers.”

This type of management philosophy led to several outcomes, from Mitchell’s perspective. “These companies saw no need to bring in or train new people in the trades; they could simply wait a while and grab an experienced person with minimum hassle. Or a smaller company would outsource their maintenance to a company that took care of multiple companies,” he says. “Community colleges and colleges eventually quit teaching classes in the trades. Why teach a class no one in the region is hiring people in? This combined with the mass closing/relocating of local industries in the ’80s and ’90s in small communities that added to the eventual carnage.”

The end effect, Mitchell says, is parents telling their kids: “Don’t bother going into the trades. There isn’t any work for them around here. That field just leads to an empty factory building like we have on the edge of town. Think about going into computers instead.” Essentially, industry locked out an entire generation of potential workers, who in turn told their kids not to bother either.

“This finally started biting U.S. industries in the mid-2000s,” Mitchell continues. “Some unionized companies I worked for have 10- to 18-year gaps in their seniority lists. All of the older workers they kept started retiring. That forced the companies to start poaching from each other. The independent maintenance companies started closing because their workers were finally finding permanent jobs. The companies that outsourced from them started feeling the pinch. There weren’t enough of us to go around and there was no one in the pipeline to replace us.”

Mitchell has been in his current job for about 10 years in electric utilities, an industry that has been experiencing the same problem of too many retiring workers and not enough younger people in the field to replace them. “Even today, about once every two months, I will get a letter from a company that wouldn’t give me the time of day 15-20 years ago, asking me to quit my job and work for them,” he says. To that he adds, “Sorry, taint gonna happen.”


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