Don’t call it a comeback: Manufacturing, mobile, and the modern candidate

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Like it or not, manufacturing has a bit of an image problem that started almost 40 years ago. It dates back to factories closing down and an unwarranted narrative around “unskilled labor” that pervades to this day.

The first large-scale job loss was in the 1980s, and the second was in the 2000s. Sandwiched in between was the 1990s when stories about sweatshops, child labor, and other issues first emerged. Overall, between 1980 and 2005, U.S. manufacturing lost more than 4.5 million jobs, or 24 percent of its employment, according to Brookings. From 2007 to 2009, we saw another 2 million jobs of these jobs disappear as the sector finally hit rock bottom.

It's no surprise that the industry’s reputation soured during this time, marred by reports of substandard working conditions and limited opportunities for growth. Many blamed low wages and the rise of offshoring. Younger generations didn’t even consider the possibility of these jobs, with one study showing that only 32 percent of Gen Z and 18 percent of Millennials had manufacturing suggested to them as a career.

As a result, SHRM reported on a 2018 study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute that estimated “as many as 2.4 million factory jobs could remain unfilled through 2028 because of a tight labor market and a lack of people with the needed skills.

What’s next

Today, as is often the case, uncertainty abounds, and manufacturing is at a crossroads due to a global pandemic on top of a fraught few decades.

Wrote manufacturing CEO Omar Asali, “Our recent recruiting difficulties underscore the need to address the talent pool challenge aggressively and systemically …To be clear, this is not just about increasing compensation and benefits; this is also about replacing the stigma currently attached to manufacturing labor with the social standing and appreciation these essential workers deserve.” There’s no doubt he’s right, but the question is, how?

A lot has changed since the 1980s, 1990s, and even the early 2000s, and yet, the challenges of image and reputation persist. Overhauling these will require more than a quirky PR campaign or two. No, to address the industry’s issues and start engaging younger candidates, manufacturing needs to look at not only how it operates but also how it communicates with and, in turn, attracts talent.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Tell the Full Story: If part of the problem is that Gen Z and Millennials don’t see manufacturing as a career, you need to initiate that conversation – and the sooner, the better. Figure out what these candidates are looking for and how to reach them. SHRM gave the example of one company that gave student tours, sent speakers to high schools, joined a youth apprenticeship program, and played up the technology it uses.
  • Digital Natives and the Mobile Apply Flow: On the topic of technology, younger candidates grew up with it at their fingertips, both literally and figuratively. They are masters of this domain and expect employers to provide a candidate experience that reflects their experience. That means building out a mobile-first applicant flow, rather than a “sort of, kind of” mobile-friendly one. Show them how cutting-edge the manufacturing world is through your recruiting process.
  • A Clear Path Forward: Many in manufacturing fear automation, thinking it will eliminate jobs, or at least that’s what they’ve heard. It’s up to employers to assuage these concerns and offer candidates a clear path forward, one that includes the possibility of upskilling and career development should they enter into the field. That might mean job shadowing, mentoring, management training, and the like.
  • The COVID-19 Conversation: Given manufacturing’s role in the global supply chain, prospective candidates will likely have questions about potential employers and their response to the crisis. Building trust will be vital in rehabbing the sector, so transparency is paramount. Tell candidates what they need to know about the policies and procedures designed to keep them safe and well.

Like the rest of the world, manufacturers are emerging from an experience that’s changed both the work they do and what this work means. It isn’t the same industry it was 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years ago, and it’s time to share a new story with new candidates.

Asali summarized, “We must redefine the manufacturing world as one that provides its workforce with opportunity for employment and advancement and the chance to participate fully in defining our future.”

Recognizing the opportunity to reinvent the space, manufacturing needs to adopt new talent practices. These strategies should put younger candidates at the center of the narrative, using mobile tech to reach them where they are and explore what’s possible in this sector.

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