Manufacturing recruiting turns its eye to Gen Y

Manufacturers are struggling to find younger workers to fill the shoes of seasoned employees, according to a ThomasNet report.

Manufacturing's biological clockManufacturing's biological
clock

The generation gap is typically used to explain vast age differences in style, slang and musical tastes. For manufacturers, the gap has a much grimmer connotation: Younger people are not applying for manufacturing jobs quickly enough to replace their predecessors, which is causing a drop in manufacturing talent that could affect the industry for decades to come, according to ThomasNet.com's 2013 Industry Market Barometer report.

Take ThomasNet customer and Industry Market Barometer (IMB) survey respondent American Crane and Equipment Corp.

"We're able to find the people that we need, but we've been noticing a shrinking pool of applicants and have to spend more time and money retraining new hires," said Karen Norheim, vice president of marketing and information technology at the Douglassville, Penn.-based company, which makes cranes, hoists and other material-handling equipment, as well as parts for nuclear applications, in three plants across the U.S.

According to Norheim, American Crane is especially hard-pressed to find enough applicants for its designer positions -- people who have the ability to design a machine from beginning to end and understand the engineering around it. "To get to that point, a person needs a combination of education and experience," she said. "In recent years, it seems those people have moved to other industries."

As the company continues to lose older employees to retirement, American Crane is actively seeking out younger applicants to pass on that "brain trust" of knowledge, but it has been a challenge to find these applicants as fast as the older guard is retiring. "It's almost like we're running on a treadmill to keep up right now," Norheim said.

Report depicts race against the clock

American Crane was among the more than 1,200 manufacturers who participated in this year's survey. The report annually examines the state of small- to medium-sized manufacturing companies, explained Linda Rigano, executive director of media relations at ThomasNet, a Web-based information technology company who's sourcing and supplier discovery platform connects manufacturers with suppliers, distributors and computer-aided designs (CADs).

It's almost like we're running on a treadmill to keep up right now.

Karen Norheim, VP of marketing and information technology, American Crane and Equipment Corp.

The "biological clock," as ThomasNet calls it, is a timely problem facing manufacturers. As more Baby Boomer executives and managers near retirement, there aren't nearly enough new recruits from the Generation Y or Millennial employee pool -- workers in their 20s to early 30s -- stepping in to take their places. Adding to the urgency is the fact that 75% of the workforce will be from the Millennial generation by 2025, according to ThomasNet.

One thing that may be stopping younger candidates from applying to these positions is the stereotype that manufacturing companies are old-school in their use of IT and slow to adopt new technology. In fact, seven out of 10 companies surveyed believe there are still negative public perceptions about careers in manufacturing. According to ThomasNet, this represents a significant misrepresentation of technology's role in manufacturing.

"Contrary to popular belief, manufacturing is really a hotbed of integration and growth," Rigano said. "These companies [surveyed] are really leveraging technology in ways that nobody else has, innovating new products and processes." Based on the report findings, the new technologies being used by manufacturers range from CAD applications and three-demisional printing, to robotics and specialized coding.

For many manufacturers, new technologies have been a path to new growth opportunities. More than half of the companies surveyed have experienced business growth in the past year, and two-thirds of the companies expect to grow in the coming year, according to Rigano. Additionally, eight out of 10 companies have plans to increase their production capacity in the coming year, aided by technology.

The changing face of manufacturing recruitment

So how can manufacturers boost the dwindling numbers of young job applicants? According to Rigano, it starts with shifting public perception of what a career in manufacturing looks like. "Manufacturing and production today is not just moving a box from A to B," she said. Today's manufacturing workers are dealing directly with software and hardware, and need to know how to leverage technology to create a finished product. "It's very much a skilled trade," Rigano said.

Making a concerted effort to reach out to Gen Y job seekers is also essential, she added. More work needs to be done to raise awareness among younger workers on what's new in the manufacturing industry and why they should care. "Manufacturing needs a brand makeover," Rigano said. "[Manufacturers need to] portray it for what it is -- a hotbed of innovation -- and show examples of companies that are doing cutting-edge projects and are hiring."

Getting the word out will mean partnering with schools, employment agencies and other manufacturers to reach as many young job recruits as possible. There's also renewed interest in apprenticeship and internship programs, where high-school and college students work right on the plant floor and receive training to build their skill sets and improve their chances of finding jobs after graduation. Manufacturers are also reaching out to engineering students, as more careers in the industry now require engineering know-how, according to Rigano.

Manufacturer makes Millennial workers center of recruitment

The "biological clock" issue has become apparent to manufacturers, and some companies, including American Crane, are making it the cornerstone of their hiring strategy. 

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The company has set up internships and recruitment within vocational-technical schools, she explained, in an effort to grab the attention of more Millennial job seekers. Much of this effort is focused on Penn State Great Valley, one of the local universities. The company is helping to implement and promote a new undergrad discipline for design engineers and is partnering directly with the school to provide internship opportunities for students, according to Norheim.

Social media outreach is another component of American Crane's recruitment strategy that is being executed with ThomasNet's digital marketing capabilities. There are also plans to leverage mobile computing as a means to attract younger applicants, Norheim said.

And speaking of newer technology, fresh faces can also bring fresh IT know-how. "I think it's important to bring the Gen Y [applicants] on board, because they're going to have areas that they're accustomed to, like mobile technology, and that's an important dimension we want to bring to our problem-solving team," Norheim said.

The most important part of bridging the generational recruitment gap, according to Norheim, is clear and consistent messaging. "We need to get the word out and talk about how [manufacturing] can be exciting," she said. "As you start recruiting, make sure that the younger generation is valued, respected and feels at home. Create a culture of teamwork and problem solving."

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