By Brittany Willes, contributing writer
The American Mold Builder
It’s no secret to those who are already in the industry that manufacturing can offer many great career opportunities. Unfortunately, younger generations have little knowledge of the manufacturing industry and rarely consider it as a serious career path. As a result, as older generations retire, many of those jobs are going unfilled for lack of qualified workers. Now, companies are beginning to ask themselves, “How can we attract more millennial employees?”
“I decided to get a teaching degree in technical education in 1990,” remarked Antigone Sharris, coordinator for the Engineering Technology and Mechatronics department at Triton College, River Grove, Illinois. “I saw the writing on the wall for all of us, even back then. Education was starting to shut down the technology and shop programs, even though they knew what it would mean down the line. I knew the domino effect was going to catch up to us. It took about 15 years, but here we are.”
According to Sharris, in order to attract more millennials to the manufacturing workforce, the number one thing manufacturers must do is change the way they handle the pipeline. The world of manufacturing is not well understood by today’s youth, partly because companies have rarely needed or taken time to engage the schools. With the lack of opportunity for hands-on classroom experience before entering the workforce, students rarely consider manufacturing as a career option. As Sharris noted, “All students have today is an image of manufacturing in the 1980s. Back in the day, schools had shop classes integrated into their curriculums. When I was in high school, everyone was required to take two years of drafting and two years of shop. Those are the kinds of classes kids need but don’t have access to anymore, except as electives. Now, there is little or nothing offered in the classrooms, and so millennials don’t even know about us.”
To combat this lack of knowledge, manufacturers need to be involved with schools from the community college level all the way down. Some companies have taken steps in the right direction, developing programs such as Apprenticeship 2000, which offers a four-year training program and a six-week summer internship. “This program allows high school students to make an educated choice about careers in technical trades without losing their chance to attend a four-year college degree program with their current class,” stated Steven Rotman, president of Ameritech Die & Mold, Inc., Mooresville, North Carolina.
Rotman was instrumental in establishing the program, which began in 1995 as an apprenticeship partnership located in the Charlotte, North Carolina, region, according to the Apprenticeship 2000 website (www.apprenticeship2000.com). The goal of Apprenticeship 2000 is to offer technical career opportunities to motivated high school students leading to employment after graduation. In return, sponsoring companies obtain highly skilled employees to fit their technical needs. Partner companies provide onsite apprenticeships in various technical trades, including mechatronics, tool and die, injection molding and CNC machining. The 8,000-hour program spans four years of training, which includes dedicated time each week for college classes. Upon graduation, students earn an AAS degree in Mechatronics Technology and are awarded a journeyman’s certificate by the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
Every September, Apprenticeship 2000 hosts an informational luncheon for career and technical counselors and guidance counselors from its area high schools to answer any questions and ensure schools are aware of, and understand, the opportunity being provided. “We then visit those same high schools in December and do a presentation for math and CAD classes,” Rotman explained. “We talk students through the program, as well as give guided tours of the facilities. We encourage them to visit any of the partner companies to see the different types of training.”
While programs like Apprenticeship 2000 can go a long way toward getting younger students interested in, and more aware of, the opportunities to be found in manufacturing, they’re not always enough. For instance, Sharris noted, many training programs focus heavily on high school students while missing out on the untapped potential of community college students. Companies also need to be sure they are connecting directly with the faculty members, not just department chairs. “Companies need to engage directly with the specific educators within the curriculum,” Sharris asserted. Teachers are the ones who actually know the students, their strengths and weaknesses, and are much better able to assist companies in hiring the best employees.
It’s not enough to just to attract younger workers. Once hired, companies also need to make greater efforts to keep their millennial employees from moving on to other companies. As both Rotman and Sharris have noted, younger generations expect a great deal of communication from their supervisors, particularly acknowledgement for their efforts. According to Rotman, students participating in Apprenticeship 2000 receive, “minimum six-month reviews that include write-ups of their accomplishments. We spend a lot of time reviewing and discussing their college classes and any areas where they may be struggling.” Once out of the classroom and onto the shop floor, millennials expect similar levels of communication.
“Millennials have been raised to expect constant feedback,” stated Sharris, who believes video games are partly responsible for this mentality. “They’ve grown up with these games that provide instant gratification and quick level advancement. Sadly, they transfer that knowledge of levels in video games to the workplace, thinking they should be moving up constantly instead of being at the same job/level for several years.” To get around this “level up” mindset, Sharris recommends phrasing advancement as a process of continual learning, explaining that they will be in certain jobs or areas as they learn new skills and will move into another area once they’ve acquired certain skills – never mind how long that will take. “If you bite-size the information,” explained Sharris, “then they are less likely to think ‘I’m going to change jobs.’ For some young workers, just hearing that they may be in the same area for three years has them already mentally leaving the company.” Part of this also may stem from the fact that millennials have grown up in a world that is constantly changing. Despite how it may seem at times, this is actually a good thing.
“They are naturally more accepting of change than older employees,” said Sharris. Back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, people had one job which they often did for 30 years or more. Change was not common. Now, millennials are entering the work force and expect change all the time. “They are probably your biggest asset,” Sharris argued. “They bring opportunity to the table because they know computers better and they’re comfortable with change, which means now is the time for companies to change. As these people come in, companies can now start implementing changes that they couldn’t before.”
Echoing Sharris, Rotman asserted, “Youth is the key to survival and the future of the companies that we have worked so hard to establish!” And, growing those companies means connecting with schools at all levels, including community colleges, and keeping the doors of communication open between supervisors and employees.
An important part of that communication needs to include emphasizing and explaining a company’s benefits package. “It’s the weirdest thing,” Sharris stated, “but millennials don’t understand the benefits package. In the past, people were more cognizant of money, and when companies would hire employees in their 30s and 40s, those people actually understood this stuff, so it wasn’t an issue.” She went on to explain that when millennials are looking at a job, typically they’re not looking beyond the salary or hourly wage. If companies want to retain younger workers, the benefits package needs to be explained in a very simple way so potential employees understand what they get and when they get it.
“You almost have to do an assessment of the benefits packages of the companies around you,” said Sharris. “Poaching happens, and you could have an employee who leaves for an additional 25 cents per hour because they don’t understand what they’re giving up in terms of benefits. They only understand the wage part.”
Compared to general employment, manufacturers have the best benefits packages on the market. However, millennials often don’t understand or realize their companies offer such benefits as tuition reimbursement and low or no out-of-pocket health care costs. Some millennials don’t know or care what a 401(k) is because they are not thinking about retirement. “I tell kids, ‘I know you’re not thinking about this, but wouldn’t it be cool to retire when you want to? Do you really want to be working at 70 years old?’” said Sharris. “Manufacturing provides that opportunity, but manufacturers need to do a better job of explaining to younger employees the benefits of working for their companies, beyond just the dollar amount of their paychecks.” Additionally, manufacturers need to perform, and keep performing, assessments to make sure their benefits portfolio is as good as or better than other companies in the neighborhood.
As Rotman and Sharris noted, youth is the key to the industry’s survival and represents its greatest asset. While change is not always easy, to attract the kind of workers they need, companies have to be able and willing to communicate with the younger generation in different ways than in years past. This begins with programs like Apprenticeship 2000 and must continue into college classrooms, particularly community colleges, and beyond. Change is inevitable; therefore, it only makes sense to embrace those people who are more comfortable and best able to handle the challenges that go along with it.