Manufacturing’s “Branding” Crisis

Millennials could save U.S. manufacturing from a severe looming talent shortage – but they need to be interested first.

Despite a gradually recovering job market, many millennials still feel their job prospects are dim. One Federal Reserve survey found that just 45 percent of young workers ages 18 to 30 are “optimistic about their job future,” and that only 29 percent of young workers have held the same job for one year.

But millennials might have more reason for optimism if they considered an industry they’re currently overlooking: manufacturing.

Once long troubled by a lack of jobs, manufacturing now suffers from a lack of workers. According to the Manufacturing Institute, the industry expects it will need to fill as many as 3.5 million American jobs over the next decade – in part due to worker retirements but also due to the industry’s nascent U.S. revival. Thanks to low domestic energy prices, technology advances and a variety of other factors, more U.S. companies are “reshoring” jobs or expanding production at home.

But the industry also predicts that as many as 2 million of these future jobs may go unfilled for lack of qualified – and willing – talent. Many younger workers simply don’t see manufacturing as the highly paid, innovative industry it’s become, which means they’re also not pursuing the kinds of technical and other skills required to qualify for these jobs.

A 2015 report by the Manufacturing Institute found that just 37 percent of parents would encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing, while young adults ages 19 to 33 ranked manufacturing dead last among their preferred career paths. The survey also found that 52 percent of teenagers said they had “no interest” in manufacturing, with a majority of these teens saying they believed these jobs to require “little thinking or skill” and “minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement.”

As New England Council CEO James Brett testified in a hearing this week on manufacturing, sponsored by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer: “The fact of the matter is, many people still view manufacturing as a dirty, dark, dangerous, and declining industry.”

Source: Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute

In reality, the average U.S. manufacturing worker – who also likely holds a post-secondary credential if not a college degree – earned $77,506 in 2013.

The manufacturing industry has been greatly concerned about its image problem and is working aggressively to counteract decades of bad press around manufacturing’s decline. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers now sponsors “Manufacturing Day” each October, where young people can visit local facilities and learn more about the opportunities in their communities. So far this year, the effort expects to include more than 360 locally-sponsored events nationwide.

But another way to rehabilitate the industry’s image among younger workers might be to change how the increasingly diverse kinds of jobs now available in manufacturing are described. Millennials may not find a “manufacturing” job interesting, but how about a job in advanced robotics or cloud computing?

For better or for worse, the term “manufacturing” still conjures up a production line, with rows of workers mindlessly cranking out widgets. But many of today’s “manufacturing” jobs now involve careers more commonly associated with the services sector, such as engineering, research, computers and IT, design, marketing, and project management, that have more curb appeal to tech-savvy younger workers.

In fact, the International Trade Commission reports that for some manufacturing sectors, such as computers and electronics, the share of services involved in production – the “services intensity” – is as high as 47.6 percent. Moreover, the services component of manufacturing is likely to grow, as manufacturers work to make their supply and distribution chains more efficient through the use of “Big Data” analytics and other computing innovations.

In talking about manufacturing, policymakers may also do well to shed their reflexive framing of the sector as the poster child for U.S. competitiveness – or lack thereof. In the years of manufacturing’s decline, the loss of jobs to competitors overseas became a potent proxy for the threat of America’s overall economic decline. As the engine that built the 20th century middle class, manufacturing’s health was a powerful symbol of both national pride and global standing.

But it’s not clear that “Made in America” has the same nationalistic pull on millennials as it did for earlier generations, or that an emphasis on U.S. competitiveness will motivate younger workers to consider manufacturing as a career or to see it with the same emotional resonance.

Compared to their elders, millennials – perhaps because of their own diversity – appear to be much more comfortable in a globalized world. That could explain why 69 percent of Americans under 30 say they think trade agreements are good for America, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to just 51 percent of those over 50.

For millennials, the right way to talk about manufacturing might be to frame it as a way to participate in the global economy, rather than competing against it.

A recent survey by PwC, the University of Southern California and the London School of Business found that “opportunity for progression” was among the top priorities for younger workers in looking for a satisfying career. It’s clear that manufacturing can offer those opportunities to millennials – if they can be persuaded to take a look.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.