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September 1, 2014

Understanding Your Next Generation of Employees

How to show Millennials that manufacturing is for them

America’s manufacturing companies are on the cusp of a major demographic transition. Managers and senior supervisors who entered manufacturing in the 1960s and ’70s—the Baby Boomers—are beginning to retire. Their logical successors would be members of Generation X, which followed the Baby Boom. But many manufacturers scaled back hiring in the ’80s and ’90s and introduced new policies, like two-tier wage systems, which made the sector far less appealing. Gen Xers’ reluctance to join the industry is now evident in manufacturing’s comparatively older workforce: 50.7% is 45 or older, while that age group composes 44.5% of the economy’s overall workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A sobering example is ArcelorMittal’s Indiana Harbor East plant in East Chicago, Indiana, where almost half of 3,300 workers are eligible for retirement. Now, Boomers are looking to Millennials—the generation of young adults 34 and younger—to fill their shoes in the coming years. 

This transition is by no means assured, however. Few Millennials grew up with parents working in manufacturing, and they were told to pursue careers requiring a college degree. Moreover, the industry still has a reputation, however undeserved, for long hours, dangerous physical labor and lack of job security.

So how can manufacturers attract and retain young talent? First, executives must recognize that, broadly speaking, Millennial attitudes and behaviors differ from those of the previous two generations. My research shows that the Millennial generation can be characterized in seven distinctive ways. 

They feel special. Almost from birth, Millennials have been raised to feel central to their parents’ lives and important to the adults around them—in other words, to feel special. When most Boomers and Xers became parents, they agreed that they spent—and continue to spend—more time with their kids than their own parents ever did with them. 

In the workplace, Millennials want to be mentored, feel like an important team member and make their voice heard right away.

They have been sheltered. Compared to Boomers and Xers, Millennials grew up in highly protected environments. As workers, Millennials expect zero-tolerance safety policies. Manufacturers should provide them with detailed protocols and underscore safety as a top priority. Millennials also appreciate benefits packages that include support services like financial planning, tax preparation assistance and contributions to retirement savings. 

They are confident. Raised to believe they can do anything, Millennials are optimistic about themselves, their generation and the future. Millennials believe that with enough hard work and planning, they can come together to solve the world’s most intractable problems. 

For this reason, they’re looking for an environment with plenty of positive reinforcement—the opposite of the do-it-and-don’t-ask-why model that’s long characterized manufacturing and other traditionally “macho” sectors like the armed forces. 

They are team-oriented. While growing up, Millennials did lots of group projects in the classroom, joined clubs for extracurricular activities and volunteered for community service. As employees, they prefer teamwork to competition and gravitate toward employers whom they see as trying to make a positive difference.

In many ways, this mindset is ideally suited to manufacturing, where employees regularly check in with one another and work together to deliver quality products on time. The bottom line: Give Millennials shared responsibilities, the chance to learn from peers, and let them collaborate on design and production work.

They are conventional. Surveys show that Millennials want to become good citizens, good neighbors and well-rounded people who start families. The values gap separating youth from their parents has virtually disappeared. To a surprising degree, Millennials watch the same movies and listen to the same songs as their parents. They discuss personal problems with their parents. 

Millennials want a “mainstream” job. They seek out workplaces with norms, structure and the possibility for long-term career advancement. They want training in “soft skills” so they can dress, answer phones, write emails and meet clients properly. Give them clear direction, and they’ll thank you for it.

They feel pressured. Driven by pushy parents and rising expectations for a college degree, Millennials increasingly believe that long-term success demands near-term achievement and planning. They’re under enormous pressure to find the right job in a young-adult labor market that remains dismal years after the recession ended. After they land a job, Millennials look to managers for feedback to make sure that they’re on the right track, both for specific tasks and their long-term careers.

They are achievement-oriented. With schools increasingly focused on accountability and standards, Millennials are on track to become the best-educated young adults in U.S. history. The share of 25- to 29-year-olds who currently have finished at least a high school education (90%), some college (63%) or a four-year college degree (33%) are all at record highs.

When they were young, Boomers and Xers often resisted being pigeonholed by “the system.” But Millennials are generally willing to jump through institutional hoops and look for clear benchmarks to master skills and advance their careers.

Faced with this rising wave of Millennials, all employers have had to rethink their approach toward managing and retaining young workers. But this generation poses a unique challenge to manufacturing companies, which are facing a branding problem. To Millennials, the industry looks like a dead end. They don’t see a future in any job associated with the “old” economy, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have been created in the United States during the last few years. 

To shake off the old image, manufacturers need to rebrand as an industry of the future, where employees can lead, achieve and innovate. Many of the positions that manufacturers are looking to fill today align with Millennials’ preferences: They’re highly skilled, pay well, provide a clear ladder for advancement and emphasize teamwork and training. Before they retire, Baby Boomer executives at manufacturing firms need to communicate this reality persuasively—and make sure they’re ready for this generation. 

Neil Howe is president and co-founder of the consulting firm LifeCourse Associates and the author of over a dozen books on generations and demographic change.