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​US manufacturers struggle to attract ‘cool’ millennials

Monday, July 30, 2018   (0 Comments)
Financial Times
Patti Waldmeir



Manufacturers in the US have an image problem. Struggling to compete for workers in a tight labour market, they are battling an extra disadvantage when recruiting millennial and younger workers to replace baby boomers exiting the workforce: many young people do not want to work in factories.

Difficulty recruiting staff, partly reflecting an unspoken stigma attached to factory jobs, is "my number one limiter of growth”, says Patrick Bass, US chief of ThyssenKrupp, the German conglomerate. "Through the late 1970s and all of 1980s it was drilled into households that if your children do not go to college, they will not have successful after-school years,” he said. "But there are more paths to success than just college.”

"In the US, an engineer usually comes out of university after five or five and a half years” and can earn an average starting salary of $45,000 to $50,000 with some debt, he said. "A certified welder after four years can be earning $85,000 to $100,000 a year without anywhere near the debt. But most households will still say the engineer has a successful career while the welder does not. That’s a fundamental issue we need to work on.”

He says the most critical need in his company and other manufacturing concerns is for "mid-level” technical jobs, such as quality technicians, line technicians and certified welders — jobs that require two years of training, not a four-year university degree.
 
ThyssenKrupp is trying to tackle this problem with its own apprenticeship programmes in the US, drawing on the experience of its German home, where industrial apprenticeships are a common and respected career path.
 
The underlying challenge for US manufacturers is that their workforce is ageing. US Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that half of manufacturing workers are 45 or older and younger people are not entering manufacturing at anything like the rate necessary to replace them when they retire. In the Chicago area, according to one study, one-third of manufacturing workers are over 55 and there are two manufacturing job openings for every hire.

In the next decade, largely as a result of retirements, there will be 3.4m manufacturing job openings, said Becky Frankiewicz, North America president at ManpowerGroup, a recruitment company, many of them in "digifacturing”: highly automated and data-driven manufacturing.

Introducing millennials to this opportunity remains a work in progress. Esra Ozer, chief communications officer at Arconic, which houses the downstream assets of the old Alcoa, told an FT Future of Manufacturing summit in Chicago in May that manufacturing jobs are still regarded, by parents and educators, as "dirty, repetitive — no pathway to the middle class”.

Tracey Massey, president of the Americas for Mars Wrigley Confectionery, told the same summit that her company tries to play up the cool factor in advanced manufacturing. "If you can’t make it cool, you are not going to attract people,” she says, noting that hers is the only manufacturing company in Fortune’s Top 100 best US companies to work for.

Ms Frankiewicz sounded a similar note, asking: "How will they know manufacturing is not your grandparents’ job unless we tell them?”

The problem in the US has been exacerbated by the fact that industrial arts classes that were required in prior generations — and gave students at least a taste of skills such as carpentry or welding — have taken a back seat in recent decades to university-bound academic work, industry experts say.

"Most young people don’t know much about manufacturing — perhaps their parents don’t work there,” says Erin Steva, Midwest director of Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy group that promotes apprenticeships. Many students think apprenticeships are unpaid, cannot result in a college degree, and are available only for "jobs from the past — like blacksmith”, she said.
 
Participants in ThyssenKrupp’s Youth Apprenticeship Programme in its Danville, Illinois, camshaft facility start the programme as high school juniors and spend two years attending high school, obtaining a metalworking certification through the local community college and working part-time at the plant. Some of them say they had planned to be doctors or lawyers — or even paleontologists. But their apprenticeship won them over to "digifacturing”.

Most said their high school guidance counsellors did not steer them towards industry. Apprentice Barbara Westerfield, 18, said: "They have to be careful not to upset the parents: ‘Why are you telling my child to work in a factory?’” But though she "never planned to go into manufacturing”, she said she was "surprised about what I discovered here, it’s not dirty, it’s actually pretty clean.”

But Tom Warner, chief executive of ThyssenKrupp Presta Camshafts Danville, said some factories are simply cooler than others. "We have a tremendous amount of robots, that’s ‘cool’ for students, and the automotive sector is a sexier business that is easier for youth to relate to,” he said, doing his part to rebrand US manufacturing.

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