Attracting Next-Generation Manufacturing Workers

I left the lobby with an escort for my first visit to the factory. We traveled the corridor to the green double doors, pausing only to grab some safety glasses and a couple of the little foam “hearing protection” cylinders you try to wedge into your ear canal.

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Even after spending almost 20 years in manufacturing, I was unprepared for the deafening noise, the dark and smoky atmosphere and the view blocked 20 feet away by a long row of enclosures.

As we walked back to one of the machining lines, we had to avoid puddles in the walkways—that were actually shared by the forklifts. Much of the liquid covering the floors was machine oil/cutting oil and therefore slippery. Of course, metal chips from the cutting operations were everywhere.

That was well over 20 years ago. It was the Ford Engine Plant in Lima, Ohio, but it could have been any automotive plant in any location. I’d visited at least a hundred before that one. And that is probably still the image in the minds of your typical Wall Street Journal or The New York Times writer when they do an article on manufacturing. Unfortunately, that is probably also the image in the minds of young people considering engineering as a career.

One recurring topic, especially of lunch and hallway conversation during The Automation Conference ( was the need to find young engineering talent. How do we convince young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics degree programs? Then, how do we entice them into manufacturing? Trust me, this is not a new problem. Freshman engineering students at the University of Cincinnati when I was there were given a survey of career aspirations. Almost all said “Research and Development.”

Here are a few thoughts to offer as an antidote to that poison. First, manufacturing plants today are now mostly clean, well lit, quiet and efficient. And those that aren’t...well, management is trying to make them that way. Technology has replaced brute force. So the work is “knowledge work” requiring technical education, from associate degrees to advance engineering degrees.

Mass media loves stories about people who get rich quick. Think Facebook. IPO. We all know the reality that becoming a billionaire is a very unusual thing. Sure, a few people in Silicon Valley may get rich at 26. Manufacturing, on the other hand, is stable employment compared to most of the rest of society, and actually pays better than the median.

Ask the right question
William Strauss, senior economist and economic adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, spoke on the status of manufacturing to a group of The Automation Conference speakers May 21. He showed a key statistic that’s all about asking the right question. Over a long period of time (about 70 years), manufacturing employment in total numbers has been stable, but manufacturing output has risen dramatically. The key is productivity. So if you look at the numbers of total manufacturing employment as a ratio of total U.S. employment, then you would think manufacturing is in decline. If you look at the output of manufacturing in the United States, then you would have an optimistic view of the state of manufacturing.

Manufacturing is not going to be the employer of the vast majority of the population—here or anywhere. But the quality of the jobs and the wealth creation that it provides are a true benefit to society.

One last comment that I heard at the conference: Tell them it’s cool to build some of the things they see in the movies or in games.

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