A Gen Y Perspective on Making Manufacturing Cool Again


A recent report on the Deloitte Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing found that only 17 percent of surveyed individuals would consider starting a career in manufacturing. As a 23 year old firmly rooted in Gen Y culture, that statistic didn’t really shock me. I know few people my age that list manufacturing amongst their career dreams. Personally, I never considered pursuing a career in manufacturing either.

I never thought I’d be remotely involved in manufacturing. However, shorty after graduating I got a job with Software Advice – a research firm that reviews manufacturing software such as job shop software applications. Today, I find myself reporting on the manufacturing industry and various related technologies – but it’s a far cry from a career in manufacturing.

I never gave much thought to the impact of so few young people pursuing a career in manufacturing. That’s changed since I’ve gained a better understanding of the importance of manufacturing to our economy. I think we need to get Gen Y – and the next generation – interested in manufacturing again. I recently sketched out a few ideas I think can help make it happen.

My generation is one that’s obsessed with being cool and it strikes me that a career in manufacturing doesn’t seem cool. This is one of the major barriers we’ll need to overcome to pique the interest of our youth. Here are a few other ways that I think we can address this issue:

Introduce Manufacturing in a Fun Setting. I never went to a summer camp as a kid, but I worked at one as a teenager. For counselor and camper alike, it’s a life-changing experience. You learn, grow and engage in activities together. It’s is a perfect setting to introduce manufacturing principles to young people. My favorite example of this is Gadget Camp. At this camp, kids are required to build a product from concept to creation, using CAD technology. This introduces young people to manufacturing in an entirely different way than the career is usually presented.

Bring Back Technical Education. Technical education, such as shop class, used to be a major part of most high school curricula. From my understanding, most male students were required to take at least one technical training course. Getting this kind of training didn’t mean that students were pigeon-holed into that career, but it let them know that it was an option. I think that technical training would help more youth become familiar with building with their hands. By extension, they’d be more likely to consider a manufacturing career.

Turn Manufacturing Training into a Game. We are one of the first generations that grew up being hyper-connected. We have instant access to the Internet and a wealth of entertaining video games. Many young people strongly prefer playing a video game on the couch to learning about, let’s say, lean manufacturing principles. One way to get over this barrier is to turn manufacturing education and training into a game itself. One of the most interesting examples that I’ve seen is Plantville, which Siemens recently released. It’s like Farmville with manufacturing principles and technologies built in.

These are a few ways that I think we can get young people to consider manufacturing as a career once more. What do you think it will take? Leave me a message on my blog at: How Manufacturing Can Attract Young Talent Again. Alternatively, you can ping me @ERPAdvice.

Derek Singleton graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA with a BA in Political Science. Shortly after graduating, he began writing for the Software Advice blog as an ERP Market Analyst. He covers the distribution, manufacturing and supply chain software markets with special attention paid to the business benefits of information technology. He particularly enjoys writing about the relevance of technology to sustainability and greening efforts. He can be reached at  derek@softwareadvice.com and followed on Twitter @ERPAdvice. 

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  1. My brother, a sixth-grade teacher w/ a doctorate in using computers for educating, suggests that having a video game specifically dealing with manufacturing probably isn’t the best approach. Most “educational” games are less than successful. They are not “cool”.

    Instead, he recommends getting game designers to insert manufacturing elements into “regular” gaming scenarios. Perhaps the player has to design and manufacture a weapon that will halt the Zombie invasion or a type of tractor that can harvest the crops more efficiently. Integrate the “problem-solving” aspect of manufacturing and engineering into the existing challenges.

  2. Nice article Derek. I agree, it really is about exposure starting at a young age. There is a history lesson throughout the generations as to why manufacturing developed a stigma. But manufacturing has changed so much. There are some seriously rewarding careers that require loads of technology and smart thinkers. I don’t think anyone would ever get bored. But our young folks need to stick their head around the corner (like you did) and take a look. Some programs like you suggest above would certainly help.

  3. manufacturing is uncool because generation y see it as something they do in third world sweatshops.while “THE MONEY” IS MADE IN,Innovative design ,marketing ,advertsment,and Entertainment.money is cool.
    manufacturing,logistics and maintanance are nessacary evils left to the working poor.

    • I am going to be 60 soon. Guess I’m close to the being in the Geezers Club but I remember that my impression of manufacturing as a teenager was that manufacturing plants were dirty, hot, dangerous etc. My perception and the truth were somewhat different. Our challange then is to change the perception more than the reality. I think it has been documented that Gen Y does not have the same motivation that we had or our parents. What appeals to them now is a different experiance. It’s totally possible. In our operation, everyone gets involved in the “Cool” stuff. As a result, our workers (Most 20-30) feel that they are part of “IT”. Everyone is encouraged to be creative and be part of the innovation process.

  4. Regarding what Wornwinger said above, I would disagree with him that the assumption that manufacturing work is left to the working poor who don’t want to be there. The majority of our laborers are perfectly happy doing that manufacturing job. They choose that job because they can go home after work and don’t need to worry about any of the issues of running the business. They are content with their position because they can make a living where they want to live and are perfectly happy with the life they have chosen.

    I would say it is the media who makes them wonder whether they are doing a worthy job or not, and implies that they are the downtrodden.
    I would say from my experience only about 10% of all employees aspire to do more than what they are presently doing, and are using the present job as a stepping stone to do more in life. Most folks don’t want the hassle that a manager or boss has to go through. They just want a job that they can punch in and punch out and then go home after work and enjoy their life without the pressures of running a business.

    Manufacturing has built the USA into the world powerhouse it is today and that is why the citizens of the US have prospered as well. Manufacturing takes a raw material and turns it into something that helps make everyones life easier, from the bottom to the top of the food chain. It creates something and allows us to give back to the world more than we take. It makes peoples lives better and is something to be proud of. Manufacturing is a noble purpose where one can give back more than what you take it this life. Happiness is not just about making money in this life.

  5. Hi Derek – I work for a spring manufacturer here in Houston, Texas and am always looking to keep up-to-date with the goings-on in the industry. A strong manufacturing industry is vital to the US economy, to any economy really. I’m not sure that I would say Gen Y isn’t as motivated as previous generations but I do think that priorities appear to be different and the perception of what is “cool” and “glamorous” plays a much bigger role in their decision-making process. I do agree with you and Richard in that we need to make manufacturing a cool option again or as Richard said “change the perception” of manufacturing.

    Anyways, Thanks for sharing! – Aly

  6. Mr. Singleton:

    Two observations on your posting. The first is that the notion of ‘manufacturing’ that you’re describing (software applications) is an intellectual one of designing manager apps for other highly routinized processes; perhaps historically akin to the days of making shop drawings of equipment prototypes? Even though the app may be integrated into a software package or hardwired onto a microprocessor, it is still a ‘one of a kind’ tool. But while that may initially be attractive to a young ‘knowledge worker,’ I think it’s safe to assume that that employee will not stay with an organization if his or her future work is tied solely to tweaking and upgrading that one package. Would you still want to be working on a version of World of Warcraft in 2020?

    In the future both competitive consumer mass market production AND one-of-a-kind heavy industrial hands-on manufacturing (i.e., offshore drilling platforms, ship and submarine construction, heavy lift cargo aircraft and rocketry, planetary and solar-system mining machinery, remotely operating robotics, energy collection and environmental remediation (oil spill cleanup, waste management, and water filtration equipment), etc.) will become rare, as most of this work will either be done by machines run by machines run by robotic factories and supervised by junior-level software engineers who will likely have acquired their skills in high school; or it won’t be done at all.
    I agree wholeheartedly that ‘shop’ classes should be reinstated in high schools, and that they need to be run in such a way as to not interfere with other education goals or objectives. But I’d argue that this should be done from a more ‘aesthetic’ standpoint where all future ‘workers’ learn the subtleties of tools and craftsmanship. What militates against this, however, is getting kids into middle and high school settings where they’re wielding hot soldering irons and inhaling tin and antimony fumes; using sharp chisels, nail guns, or table saws to build birdhouses and cutting boards; learning galvanizing or acid bath processes for making electronic products; or working with biological or human tissue to learn phlebotomy or to work as a medical technician, is going to be met with significant pushback from school districts and parents worrying about personal injury and liability. When those more basic classes were educational mainstays — prior to WWII and through the early 1960s — craftsmanship (and limited automation) was central to American manufacturing and our economy. (I’ll save discussion of ‘Home Ec’ and ‘Shop’ as sexist and intellectual stereotyping for some other forum…) Increasingly though, disposable or easily replaceable implements (‘stuff’) offset such notions of craftsmanship, and now genuinely highly skilled workers (plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers, electricians) are employed principally in building high-end ‘trophy’ homes and offices, and the rest of America’s construction battalions are semi-skilled, under educated, and predominantly immigrant laborers. Moreover, while the U.S. isn’t quite ‘there’ on fully prefabricated homes, we are not far from a point where even high-end homes can be partially assembled by machines at a factory or distribution point to subsequently be ‘snapped together’ on-site by semiskilled workers. (‘Piling on’ arguments are that this latter class of semiskilled laborers — ‘You want fries with that?’ — will have even fewer workplace competencies than those currently employed in the building and manufacturing trades; and in the absence of strong individual and collective bargaining rights, will have no voice in the policies of the industries they support.)
    My second issue is with your notion of work as something of a ‘game.’ I think it was Rousseau who opined that what we as adults should seek in our work the same enthusiasms we had as children at play. I like that argument as it demands that our efforts be in pursuit of that which is foremost intellectually challenging and that draws from us a ‘rapt fascination.’ If you would call that game playing, I won’t quibble, but it is certainly the foundation for a satisfying career.
    But this, then, is the real heart of why ours and other manufacturing dependent global economies are failing: Manufacturing has to be a systematized means of making uniform and quality products at the least cost, particularly in terms of human capital. ‘Stuff’ makers can only afford human beings in places were people are undereducated and an almost excess commodity (think India, Pakistan, Central and Southern Africa, South Asia, or parts of Latin America), and every other commodity price is fixed to five digits to the right of the decimal. Unhindered capitalism (unregulated and ruthlessly monopolistic) eliminates the human expense in pursuit of its bottom line, and thereby eliminates everything but for ’boutique’ manufacturing, where higher costs are considered a measure of a superior quality product. Today’s emerging workers — Americans including yourself, but globally, too — cannot survive in the 21st Century under such conditions; and assuredly will not pursue ordinary manufacturing jobs, particularly if they also incur the educational expenses apparent in higher education — including ‘trade’ schools — today.
    Your early career marks you as an ‘ideas’ worker, and this will likely be your lifetime pursuit. You may, along the way, learn to handle a chainsaw, an industrial lathe, a gas welder, and a surgical laser, but these will be incidental to your central trajectory; and most of your peers will approach the world as you do. Those with less access to information and ideas will be the serfs confined to distant environmental ‘sacrifice zones’ making the gadgets and widgets you will need for the next sixty odd years.
    My argument is, in short, that governmental domestic emphasis on supposed small business employers and manufacturing is an economically artificial and inefficient use of scarce resources (federal and state tax dollars), and presents a false political dichotomy in the debate over ‘job creation’ and governmental regulation. Economic support in the form of tax breaks, incentives, and public dollar investment is nothing more than a variant on corporate welfare that only minimally helps ‘the worker;’ and the assertion that these small businesses and manufacturers are somehow the economic engines driving the U.S. economy is nothing more than ‘trickle down’ political pap for people who won’t understand or can’t cope with a radically changing world of work.
    Keep scribbling. Your ideas will certainly foster discussion, and may just change the world…


  7. What a great article. I think a movement in this direction could take off very well. Many kids naturally like to make things, to build things with their hands, and they’re not given the chance to do that very often in today’s public education curriculum. Striving to work somewhere that you actually build something tangible on a daily basis IS cool and I agree that we should teach kids that making things here in America will make this a better place to live.

  8. Just wanted to comment that this IS happening in some schools. All 3 of my children have had a class in middle school that is not only tech ed, but is a type of tech ed manufacturing sales. They (the whole class) has to come up with and decide on a product that they as a class can manufacture and sell to peers and family. They also buy “stock” in the company, do the actual sales, and IF there is a profit those that bought stock benefit. I think it is an amazing thing. I was actually searching for ideas when I found your article.

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