“Young people don’t want to work”. It is a phrase I hear repeated often by factory owners and managers, as if by sheer repetition it will become truth. Young people do work, but they don’t work for you.
The economic and social landscape have shifted, and despite the rhetoric from politicians and concerned businesses, there hasn’t been a less attractive time to enter the manufacturing workforce as a young person today. For manufacturing operations to grow, thrive, and develop, we must understand the environment around us, and ensure that our businesses are tailored, not just to our customers, but to our workforce. In this article, we aren’t going to be discussing the engineers, managers, designers, etc, but the traditional factory workforce on the floor.
Let us start with an exercise in empathy. We could go over money, work hours, quality of life, and thousands of other factors, and we will address them, but we must start with understanding the people we want to come to work for us. This generation of young workers are highly stressed, and very worried about the economy. Cost of living is rising, and for people without degrees, less than 30% expect to own their own home, ever.
There is generally not a prevailing attitude of “Get a job, buy a home, raise a family” that was expected from previous generations. Few entry level jobs pay enough to stay far ahead of rising rents, gas prices, and living expenses. Instead, the path to economic success is skipping from place to place, building a resume, and exploiting the weak labor market to find jobs of ever-increasing compensation. This approach is, to put it mildly, not ideal for employers.
I work predominately with the Sewn Goods Manufacturing Industry, and there are very few plants capable of hiring or maintaining sewers. Those that do, are predominately immigrant workforces. Even though the pay is usually more than competitive to the region, young workers do not see a future in sitting behind a mill, a sewing machine, or a lathe.
They see themselves as one layoff away from homelessness if they rely on it too much, and they see little opportunity for promotion. To compound this, many of these factories are, bluntly, not good places to work. Noisy, dirty, crowded, chaotic. Too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. Boxy square metal buildings full of machines, and the younger generation just does not want to be there.
So that is what we are dealing with. That is our headwinds, and our challenge. So how do we change it? Every single business owner that needs, and is failing to hire, entry level workers need to sit down, and evaluate the company from the eyes of an entry level worker. I am going to lay out three critical areas where many or most manufacturing companies fall short, but there are more.
- Workforce Development
For workers to commit to you, you must commit to them. It is extremely unlikely that a new worker will show loyalty to a company that put them in the back of the storeroom and tasked them with loading boxes all day. Few people aspire to loading boxes for a lifetime, so they will take the paycheck until they find something better and move on. If you want new employees to consider a full career in your company, then show them, at hiring, what a career in your company looks like! Show them the sort of roles the company needs, and show them a roadmap that includes training, mentoring, and development that can take your most promising entry level workers and turn them into your skilled workers and management teams. For this to work, you need to invest resources, and be sincere about it.|
This one is seriously misunderstood. To many managers and factories, it is a buzzword that evokes images of overpaid consultants and insurance companies, but just take the commonsense approach here. Is this a pleasant work environment? Is it safe? Can I work a full day, week, or year here, and not be in pain as I go home? If the answer to any of those questions is “No” then you need to work on ergonomics. You might not be able to see the oil spilled on the ground, but the new workers seeing it for the first time will notice. They will see the flying sparks, they will flinch at the sounds of steel hitting concrete, and they will not come back. There are many, many ergonomic solutions out there, many of which are affordable. Invest in good lighting, dampen harsh sounds, do what you can about the temperature, and get them good chairs and workstations. It makes a huge difference in hiring and retention, and yes, it improves productivity too.
- Empathetic Management
This one can be intangible, but it can’t be overstated. Nothing drives away workers like a toxic work environment. Nobody wants to be where they aren’t welcome, and if your managers or workers are treating young people with condensation or contempt, it is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when they leave. It probably isn’t deliberate, but constantly mocking social media is probably not the best way to retain a generation that grew up on it. If they find a place where they are welcomed, mentored, and developed, they will stay, and they will be fantastic for the future of your company, but stop driving them off. Talk with your managers about patience for mistakes. Especially in industries with an aging workforce, I see fresh hires held to the same quality standards as workers that have been there for 30 years, and young people are just not able to achieve it. I hired a young man last year, and we taught him to drive the forklift. He was terrified of hitting something, as it was surrounded by tens of thousands of dollars of equipment. It was only after we treated the first (minor) accident as a learning experience that he relaxed enough to learn.
In conclusion, there is no rare, secret, hidden gem of knowledge in this article. Only a call for self-reflection. A manufacturing company in 2024 needs to be able to understand and process this if it hopes to have a future. We cannot keep relying on a 60+ year old workforce, and these problems do not improve with time. The companies that successful integrate the next generation are the companies that will thrive.
About the Author
Caleb Doty is a multifaceted leader blending military excellence with corporate acumen – Owner of Americas 21, Former GE Professional, U.S. Army Captain, and Proud University of Houston Graduate.