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July 1, 2008

HARD SELL

Manufacturing seems to have lost its luster in the eyes of young job seekers, but trade groups and metals companies are working hard to bring it back.

Looking to fill a position? Why not do it on YouTube, the video Web site? That’s where Klein Steel Service Inc. of Rochester, New York, has posted ads and reports that have helped maintain a healthy stream of job applicants despite the low regard for manufacturing prevalent among young people.

The service center and fabricator’s creative marketing efforts have boosted job inquiries fourfold. In one video, Klein Steel President John Batiste urges: “If you want the best job your friends have never heard of, check us out.” In another, Klein employees burn and laser plate, and a watercut operator slices the New York Yankees logo from half-inch-thick stainless as a souvenir for an interviewer.

But isn’t it hard work to cart around all that heavy steel? Not at Klein. Al Mangiamele, chief operating officer, demonstrates the company’s state-of-the-art Kasto automated storage system. “The idea is to take the backbreaking work out of storing and retrieving steel,” he says in the video. “If I find jobs that I wouldn’t do myself, I try to eliminate them.”

The ad campaign, in partnership with the Rochester Tooling and Machining Association, is one of a number of manufacturer and trade group efforts to boost manufacturing as a career. Metals and mining ranked near the bottom as a career choice among college students in management consulting firm Accenture’s “Class of 2008 College Survey: U.S. and Developed and Developing Countries,” released in April. Just 2% of U.S. students wanted to work in the sector. Education, media and communications topped the list of 26 fields, together receiving 88% of student selections. With few young people taking manufacturing jobs, the median age for manufacturing workers rose to 42.8 in 2007 from 37.4 in 1987, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the last seven years alone, the number of 16- to 24-year-olds in the business slipped 33%, to 1.3 million, compared with a 17% slide for manufacturing as a whole.

Even as the number of available jobs in manufacturing declines, worker shortages persist in a range of blue- and white-collar positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that manufacturing employment will fall 11% to 12.7 million by between 2006 and 2016. Yet U.S. employers report extreme shortages for engineers, machinists, machine operators and skilled manual trade workers.

Those shortages have a farreaching impact. The National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting LLP’s 2005 Skills Gap Report found that more than 80% of surveyed companies experienced skill deficits that adversely impact their ability to meet customer demands.

Reaching Out

With the latest generation of workforce entrants, the medium of communication is as important as the message. To recruit more effectively, metals and manufacturing companies need to approach young people where they already congregate—online, using social media such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. NAM is already there. As part of its “Dream !t. Do !t.” campaign, NAM posts links on all three social networking sites to DreamIt-DoIt.com, as well as videos that depict manufacturing as an exciting career that young people can be passionate about.

The earlier the seed is planted, the better, says Jeffrey Owens, president of Advanced Technology Services Inc., a Peoria, Illinois-based factory maintenance and repair company that serves O’Neal Steel, Timken, Alcoa and other metals clients. “Our company is pretty focused on starting early and explaining to kids in school that these are good opportunities and good jobs, and exposing them to plants that are well-lit, safe and packed with technology,” he says. “It takes a lot of work and conversation to overcome the paradigms they have.”

Still, surmounting the view of manufacturing as “old school” won’t be easy, says David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc., a Philadelphia-based management consulting firm focused on teens and young adults that advises companies such as Toyota, Apple and Coca Cola on ways to reach the youth market. “I can’t point to anybody who is doing something so spectacular that it’s capturing the heartstrings of twenty-somethings,” he says of manufacturer efforts to woo young talent, which typically include open houses and local ad campaigns.

Part of the problem may be confusion about what motivates young workers, who have preferences and attitudes that differ from those of previous generations. There have been no comprehensive studies of adolescent attitudes toward manufacturing in recent years, although the Alexandria, Virginia-based Association of Career and Technical Education is planning a feasibility study for next year on attitudes toward career and technical education, including manufacturing.

“We saw a major paradigm shift after 9/11, where money dropped several levels in importance for entry-level workers,” Morrison says. “They saw the bigger picture. They’ve gone through two recessions already and may have seen a parent laid off by now. They are a generation that is hedging its bets. They want to learn and have fun. Money is important, but it’s not the end-all.”

Fun is what the SME Education Foundation and the National Center for Manufacturing Education had in mind when it developed the interactive site, Manufacturingiscool.com, to promote the potential of a career in manufacturing. But companies must walk a fine line between appealing to the demographic and patronizing it. “It’s very important as manufacturers step up their game in talking to young people that they stay within the boundaries of credibility and don’t start using slang like you are hanging out with these kids on a Friday night,” says Morrison.

Emphasizing steel recycling and other green initiatives within the industry could go a long way with Generation Y, says John Lichtenstein, senior executive and metals industry practice global lead at Accenture. Two-thirds of younger workers expressed a desire to work for environmentally friendly companies, compared with just 52% of baby boomers in a 2007 poll conducted by Harris Interactive, a Rochester, New York-based market research firm for Adecco Group North America, a division of Switzerland-based Adecco S.A. “The whole debate about climate change and sustainability is an important piece of what the industry needs to do to attract talent,” he says. “Now all of the hype about CO2 gases is going to be a challenge for the industry. The grads have in mind that the companies they work for be green and sustainable. The industry has to continue to make headway.”

Even if companies can attract young people, there’s still the question of whether they will be skilled enough to meet the demands of an increasingly complex industry. North American public education systems have not consciously developed educational pipelines strong enough to deliver technical talent in the quantities needed to support global competitiveness in manufacturing.

The breadth and depth of vocational education has fallen since the 1980s, the National Center for Education Statistics reports. While the percentage of high school graduates who took vocational or technical courses dipped only slightly between 1982 and 1998, to 96.5% from 98.2%, the average number of vocational courses taken by high school graduates declined more steeply. That number decreased to 3.9 units in 1998, compared with 4.7 units in 1982. Significantly, the term “vocational education” now encompasses a number of programs that prepare students for service sector jobs in healthcare, technology and communications.

Cultural Shift

Perhaps more importantly, industry observers say the decline of career and technical education has led to increasing numbers of students in college tracks, not manufacturing. “In [the United States] we clearly have created post-World War II a ‘college culture’ where every parent believes their children should go to a four-year college and pursue a profession like law or medicine,” says Emily Stover DeRocco, senior vice president of NAM. “The majority of the jobs being created in the 21st century economy require post-secondary education, but not necessarily a four-year degree.”

The college prep mentality contributes to a widening gap between what is taught in schools and what companies need workers to know to compete in a global marketplace. Technical and community colleges help build the North American technical workforce, but families, school counselors and the media rarely tout the trades.

“We need to make sure that we are preparing kids for the jobs that are available,” says Melanie Holmes, vice president of world of work solutions at Manpower Inc. She recently joined the Milwaukee Area Technical College Board to ensure students get the skills needed to secure sustainable jobs and meet the needs of local employers.

“These institutions were not set up to provide the just-in-time education and training needed to work with rapidly changing, technologydriven industries,” says Julian Alssid, executive director of Workforce Strategy Center, a New York nonprofit organization that works with state and national leaders to develop education and employment policies that promote a competitive workforce. “Historically, community colleges have relied on employer advisory groups that may meet only once a year while preparing the region’s workers, but what we’re talking about now is the need for a much closer working relationship.”