New Column: Millennials in Manufacturing


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Editor's Note: New columnist Davina McDonnell will be writing on the challenges millennials face in the workplace, and the unique dynamic between millennials and the industry veterans who manage them.

Most of you have heard of the concern about the manufacturing skills gap—how Baby Boomers will soon start retiring from manufacturing careers with no one to replace their vacancies. Most news stories and studies present this as a major crisis—millennials simply aren’t interested in manufacturing careers and if we don’t do something about it, well, American manufacturing as we know it will disappear.

Here’s the thing. I’m a millennial in manufacturing. I work for an electronics manufacturing company with a workforce that’s almost 50% Millennial. Within Saline Lectronics, there’s no crisis. As I walk the production floor, I am surrounded by young, eager faces who seem happy and keenly interested in their manufacturing jobs.  

It might be that Lectronics is the exception to the rule with a large millennial workforce. And based on the numbers I’ve seen, that’s true. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been talking with Lectronics’ millennials to try and understand whether they are truly interested in manufacturing.

Based on my observations, millennials are very enthusiastic about their manufacturing careers, but it wasn’t until they were working in manufacturing that they understood the opportunities available within the industry. Prior to that, their perception of a manufacturing career wasn’t very positive.

One millennial, Kyle Robertson, SMT technician, commented, “When people generally think of industrial jobs they get an idea of a noisy factory and a greasy man in front of a press where he pushes the same button all day, every day.”

That’s not a very appealing image. In fact, most of the millennials I spoke with said they wished they had more positive, accurate exposure to the manufacturing environment sooner—myself included. When I first started at Lectronics, I knew very little about circuit board assembly. During my first week on the job, I Googled relevant industry terms—diode, capacitor, SMT, soldering—to be better prepared for training the next day.

I’ve been enthralled by the work at Lectronics from day one. It’s incredibly fascinating to watch the SMT machines in full-swing production as they place tiny components, barely visible to the human eye, at such a fast rate. Within electronics manufacturing, I’m exposed to a wide variety of product types, from laser eye machines to airplane black boxes, and it’s fascinating to see these technologies evolve so rapidly. Lectronics is committed to staying at the forefront of these emerging technologies, continuously investing in the right people.

From my perspective, and that of other millennials I spoke with, the manufacturing industry isn’t accurately represented in the media, or in school, as a viable career path; therefore, struggles to connect with younger generations persist. Many initiatives aren’t resonating, or even reaching, the intended audience.

If we’re truly concerned about filling the skills gap, it’s time to re-examine how manufacturing is being presented to the younger generations. Instead of hoping these generations will adapt to the industry, it’s time for the image of manufacturing to adapt to millennials.

Looking deeper into the alleged disinterest millennials have for manufacturing, I uncovered a lot of bad press about millennials, too. Accused of being impatient, self-absorbed, disloyal employees with minimal work ethic, millennials require too much praise for little effort. Presented as placing too much emphasis on social and personal fulfillment, they’re accused of being glued to their screens and difficult to motivate.

While I’m sure there are examples supporting these accusations, I’ve found many of these negative assertions to be grossly erroneous. Similar to the greasy man in the factory pushing the same button every day, the millennial perception is off. Millennials and manufacturing are suffering from the same problem—not fairly represented and totally misconstrued.

“I feel our unique work ethic is misunderstood. We are seen as needy, when really we strive for constant self-improvement, and with that, constant feedback,” commented Sr. Account Manager Andrea Tarhanich. “Constructive criticism, affirmation, as well as advice from the people in upper-management are critical.”

In talking to the millennials at Lectronics, I found this group to be incredibly self-motivated, forward-thinking and solutions-oriented. They value open communication, positive change, self-improvement, innovative problem solving, and personal advancement.

In fact, Lectronics’ millennials aren’t motivated in the traditional ways that this industry may be used to when incentivizing employees. They are less concerned with simply performing their job and collecting a paycheck. They want to be happy while at work—participating in a fun, collaborative atmosphere where they feel valued.

“People are a big motivator in being happy at work. Accomplishment and succeeding at your job is one thing, but having fun while you are doing it with people you work with, that is very important to my job satisfaction and overall happiness,” commented millennial and IT Manager, Tom Scales.

I graduated college in 2008 during the Great Recession. My prospects of landing a good job and paying off student loan debt were astonishingly bleak. Most millennials entered the job market at the same time and experienced similar problems. I believe this had a significant impact on why we aren’t motivated by money. We’ve seen firsthand the catastrophic effects of greed and buying everything on credit, so we look to other means for fulfillment, both personally and professionally.

Millennials also came to age during explosive and life-changing technological advancements, and handle it with greater ease. Most of the millennials at Lectronics are incredibly comfortable with new technologies, and have chosen to integrate these changes. Associate Engineer Alex Johnson is in charge of Lectronics’ consumer model 3D printer and uses it to develop pick and place trays, lead forming tools, and conformal coat boots. He believes for Lectronics to continue to flourish, we will “have to embrace new, more efficient, and more automated technologies.”

The same could be said for all of manufacturing. This industry is on the precipice of great change with the revolutionary applications of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and the Industry of Things (IoT). We’ve only begun to realize the benefits of real-time data from M2M communication, and the impact in manufacturing has already been exponential.

Millennials at Lectronics recognize these emerging opportunities, and are hungry to make positive change. They don’t accept status-quo, and are always looking to optimize processes and standards. They are eager for mentors to guide them by providing tips to successfully implement change.

“Millennials can see a problem and think of many different solutions to that problem. Most of them are faster, smarter, and completely random…but they work!” commented Process Engineer Cathy Cox.

On that note, I’ll let this team of millennials do what they do best: communicate. They will share with you why they enjoy working in manufacturing, what type of future each of them hopes to have within the industry, and why their skills are essential to propelling manufacturing forward.

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