The problem of attracting younger, skilled workers to replace Baby Boomers, who are retiring, is serious enough that it may threaten the ability of small and medium-sized manufacturers to continue to eke out productivity and quality gains, says ThomasNet.com, a New York-based company that connects buyers and sellers of industrial and commercial products. In late 2013, it surveyed 1,209 executives from companies with fewer than 100 employees and less than $10 million in revenue and concluded that the “manufacturing sector’s ‘biological clock’ is ticking away.”
Among companies surveyed, ThomasNet.com’s president Eileen Markowitz says there is a “lack of urgency when it comes to filling their pipeline of talent.” Overall, manufacturers now face 600,000 to 1 million job openings, according to various estimates.
Perhaps only 10 to 20 percent of major manufacturers have adequately addressed the challenge of securing new flows of young, skilled labor, estimates George Bouri, global board member and managing principal for the Americas Region at consulting firm Trascent in New York. “We Americans are laggards in this area compared with Japan, the Southeast Asians, Germany and Switzerland. Smaller manufacturers face even greater odds because they may not be able to afford to have large human resource departments and can’t afford programs in high schools and community colleges that big companies such as Boeing, IBM and Intel can.”
A Brave New Work Force?
The enormity of the challenge is captured in the contrast between what consultants describe as the ideal environment for young workers and the realities of managing a factory. “The entire manufacturing apparatus—from recruitment to retention—is still built to the industrial era,” says Bouri.
To attract millennials, manufacturers have to recognize that they are looking for “knowledge workers” and cater to their needs, he argues. That means workers should have flextime and be able to dial in to work during a family or life event. Training, benefit and retention programs have to be oriented toward them. “They have different expectations of the work experience,” Bouri adds. “They want rotation and growth.”