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Will Millennials Change Manufacturing?

Dark, dirty and dangerous -- mention the 3Ds of old-time manufacturing and HR managers shudder. It's exactly the image they don't want the public -- or millennials considering careers in manufacturing -- to have of the industry. They want to be able to talk about an industry that is attractive and safe, innovative, even cool.

So it must gladden the hearts of Lockheed Martin recruiters when Emilee Bianco talks about being "excited" to work at Lockheed Martin Space System's facility in Sunnyvale, Calif. Bianco, 25, has been working on building solar arrays to power satellites.

As a manufacturing engineer, Bianco takes design specifications, puts them into work instructions and then works to ensure that satellite hardware is built correctly.

Though she has been working just over a year for Lockheed Martin, she has already been part of a transition to a new type of solar array that uses thin, flexible sheets in place of rigid panels. The flexible arrays produce 50% more power but with 30% less mass. Bianco has also been part of automation efforts where robots are used to place solar cells on panels. Working with Lockheed on space technologies, she says, is "almost a guarantee" that you will be working on cutting-edge projects.

Bianco's generation now makes up the largest in the United States -- 83.1 million, according the U.S. Census Bureau versus 75.4 million baby boomers. Not surprisingly, millennials also make up the largest share of the American workforce -- one in three workers is a millennial, the Pew Research Center reports.

As baby boomers leave the workforce and millennials make up a more significant part of it, many manufacturers believe that this generation will change manufacturing.

"Millennials have already started changing the manufacturing and supply chains -- and for the better," says Kathie Karls-Bilski, HR director for 3M Supply Chain. For example, she says that supply chains are becoming more digitized and millennials will foster that change because of their facility with new tech.

"Their ability to transform organizations' slow processes into fast, effective business success will help manufacturing and supply chain grow for years to come," she asserts.

That should be good news for manufacturers who are grappling with the Internet of Things and other new technologies. In a research study conducted by IndustryWeek earlier this year and sponsored by Emerson, manufacturing respondents said the industrial IoT will improve operations through real-time access to information and more tightly connected supply chains, but they pointed to personnel as the most important factor for success.

"Companies and employees who embrace the rapidly transforming digital landscape stand to achieve the greatest success," says Mike Train, executive president, Emerson Automation Solutions. "But everyone has skin in the game. Employers need to provide education and upskilling opportunities, and employees need to learn new skills and competencies to manage their careers into the information age."

3M's Karls-Bilski says millennials have a leg up not only with technology but also with their curiosity and creativity.

"Millennials are also more likely and less hesitant to explore new skills and opportunities," she says. "Whereas previous generations tended to be more risk averse, millennials enjoy taking risks and adopting new ideas -- all of which are important traits for driving supply chain and manufacturing innovation."

Attracting Millennials

Many manufacturers, even in successful, growing companies, clearly worry that millennials will not be attracted to manufacturing. Some 84% of executives agree that there is a talent shortage in U.S. manufacturing, according to a survey by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte. The skills gap facing manufacturing could mean as many as 2 million jobs go unfilled over the coming decade.

"The corrugated industry is not the sexiest," observes Jeff Smith, the HR manager for SUN Automation, a Baltimore-based manufacturer of corrugated packaging equipment and parts. SUN has 154 employees and a 184,000 square foot facility.

Smith said while the company is not hiring large numbers of people, it is aware that its average worker is 50 and wants to prepare for the future. He notes that the company has completely changed its culture. An important element of that is that SUN is an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) firm, where every employee is a stockholder.

"It's a neat idea to walk around and talk to people as business partners. They have a vested interest in how well the company does," he observes.

In a research study on millennials, Manpower found that 79% wanted flexible working conditions. That is something that SUN is trying to offer through flexible start times and the ability to make up time in their work week.

Aaron Scholthauer, 32, a mechanical engineer who graduated from Johns Hopkins University, has been at SUN Automation for 10 years and is now manager of development engineering. That job involves not only managing internal resources to ensure that products are developed that meet customers' expectations but talking to customers throughout the product development process.

Scholthauer likes the smaller size of SUN and the ability to see his ideas come to fruition. He notes that some millennials only want to sit behind a computer screen, but he says the tangible nature of manufacturing products provides "a lot of the enjoyment I get from the job."

Scholthauer has several millennials on his team. He says the "old management style" based on position and power doesn't work with his generation. Instead, he believes managers need to develop relationships with their employees in order to have influence and earn their respect. That emotional connection to people, he says, results in getting "the most productivity and the highest quality work."

Scholthauer admits that the instinct to build interpersonal relationships doesn't necessarily come naturally to some engineers. He says managers have to be intentional about creating and developing these relationships.

Open to Change

It would be foolish to think that a group of more than 80 million is monolithic in their characteristics, but many experts say manufacturing can count on millennials to be open to innovation and lead the charge for change.

"Millennial leaders will challenge the accepted practices and processes in manufacturing," says Robin Schwartz, the managing partner for MFG Jobs, a job board for manufacturing positions. "As a generation known for asking questions and suggesting improvements, they will embrace an environment that is open to change."

"Millennials are really looking for organizations that value their feedback, value their opinions, value their process improvement recommendations," she added

That openness to new thinking was in evidence when Markforged, a manufacturer of 3D printers, was developing its X7 industrial printer, says Greg Mark, 36, the CEO of the firm he founded in 2013 in Cambridge, Mass.

Mark was encouraged to take things apart from an early age, and he gladly did so, from blenders to VCR machines. He says that early exposure to the mechanical world was like learning a language at a young age

"If you learn to speak it when you're young, it's much, much better," says Mark, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

But while Mark says he got a "very early mechanical education," he says he got a "very late computer science education." He notes the people he is hiring out of college don't approach projects the same way.

"Part of the reason that our software is so good is that our software is written by people who don't know the limitations of mechanical engineering and think that everything should be done with a sensor and software," he says.

When the company was developing the X7 printer, Mark emphasized to the company's software engineers the need for very precise dimensional accuracy. They asked how that was done.

"You print this part, you scrape it off, you take these micrometers and measure this thing, you enter it in Excel," Mark recalls replying to them. "The guys look to me like, 'Are you from the stone ages?' You're measuring something with your hands and entering it into Excel? There's a sensor somewhere that we can buy that will automatically do this and it will do it on every layer of every part of every printer."

And that is what happened. The X7 has a built-in laser micrometer that provides in-process scanning on the print bed so that even microscopic deviations in part dimensions are detected and reported.

Mark concludes, "It's great to have people who grew up with computers enter manufacturing because they will have a more high-bandwidth, data-driven approach."


Reflecting ongoing changes in the demographics of the United States, experts say millennials will embrace diversity and employ it as a strength in the workplace.

Karls-Bilski says diversity is a driver in millennials' job searches "whether in people, culture or community."

"The differences between employees at 3M is what drives our company forward; our successes are built off the power of different ideas and skills," she adds. "Diversity also allows supply chains to stay relevant and better reflect their customers and markets -- something 3M unquestionably believes in."

Asked who he is looking to hire, Greg Mark of Markforged says to envision a graph with a 45-degree line drawn on it. The Y axis is "horsepower" -- his term for ability. The X axis is any form of "quirkiness." If a candidate is above the line, says Mark, they are eligible to be hired.

"If you come to our business and look around, we have literally every size, shape and age person you can imagine," says Mark, adding, "If you dropped out of college and you're brilliant, we'll hire you. If you're like 75 years old and super badass, we'll hire you. I just don't care. We look at the graph and the only thing we look for is skill and will."

Millennials are much less likely to envision their career in terms of lifetime employment at one company. Instead, they will tend to see their relationship to a company as part of an ongoing conversation. Says Schwartz, "Millennial leaders will ask what can this company do for me and what can I do for this company?"

Still, large companies such as 3M are hoping that the range of their operations will entice millennials to consider a long-term connection to the company.

"At 3M, we want our employees to reinvent themselves and their career at one company," says Karls-Bilski, who acknowledges that millennials "don't want to stay in one position for 30 years -- even three years can seem daunting in today's society." But she notes that 3M is in "nearly every industry in every global market." As a result, she says, "You can reinvent yourself and your career without ever leaving 3M, to the benefit of both your own personal growth and our company's."

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