Manufacturing’s “branding” crisis

Millennials could save U.S. manufacturing from a severe looming talent shortage – but they need to get interested first.

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Despite a gradually recovering job market, many millennials still feel their job prospects are dim. One Federal Reserve survey found that just 45 percent of young workers ages 18 to 30 are “optimistic about their job future,” and that only 29 percent of young workers had held the same job for one year.

But millennials might have more reason for optimism if they considered an industry they’re currently overlooking: manufacturing.

Once long troubled by a lack of jobs, manufacturing now suffers from a lack of workers. According to the Manufacturing Institute, the industry expects it will need to fill as many as 3.5 million American jobs over the next decade – in part due to worker retirements but also due to the industry’s nascent U.S. revival. Thanks to low domestic energy prices, technology advances and a variety of other factors, more U.S. companies are “reshoring” jobs or expanding production at home.

But the industry also predicts that as many as 2 million of these future jobs may go unfilled for lack of qualified – and willing – talent. Many younger workers simply don’t see manufacturing as the highly paid, innovative industry it’s become, which means they’re also not acquiring the kinds of technical and other skills required to qualify for these jobs.

A 2015 survey by the Manufacturing Institute found that just 37 percent of parents would encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing, while young adults ages 19 to 33 ranked manufacturing dead last among their preferred career paths. The survey also found that 52 percent of teenagers said they had “no interest” in manufacturing, with a majority of these teens saying they believed these jobs to require “little thinking or skill” and “minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement.”

As New England Council CEO James Brett testified in a hearing this week on manufacturing, sponsored by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer: “The fact of the matter is, many people still view manufacturing as a dirty, dark, dangerous, and declining industry.”

In reality, the average U.S. manufacturing worker – who also likely holds a post-secondary credential if not a college degree – earned $77,506 in 2013.

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