May 26, 2014
In this Q&A, Diane Thielfoldt, co-founder of The Learning Café, shares some ideas about how metal fabricating companies can convince young people that manufacturing is full of careers worth pursuing.
Ask metal fabricators their opinions about trying to hire young people, and they are likely to just shake their head from side to side. Arguably, it might be the hardest part of running the shop.
Some of the common refrains are:
That beat just goes on and on. Young people just aren’t that into manufacturing.
But every shop needs an influx of young workers to help balance out the employee ranks. The gray-haired set commonly found at many manufacturing facilities won’t be around forever, and they need to start sharing their institutional knowledge with the next generation of workers. In fact, experts estimate that by 2016, 25 percent of all employees will be seniors.
Coincidentally, the new kids on the block have the numbers to more than adequately fill the shoes of retiring workers. Just as the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) number around 80 million, the millennials (born between 1977 and 1998) represent another generation of 80 million strong. Sandwiched in between are the 43 million Generation Xers, who have to maintain relations with those two generations, as well as the 1.5 million that remain in the workplace from what some have called the “Greatest Generation” (born 1933-1945).
The numbers add up, but the attitudes don’t measure up. But are company owners and managers really doing what they need to do to reach out to the millennials? Diane Thielfoldt, the co-founder of The Learning Café, a consultancy dedicated to working with organizations to bridge generation gaps that may exist within their own employee ranks, believes that metal fabricators have a great story to share with the newest generation of workers. They just need to tell it in a different way if they expect young people to get excited about manufacturing careers.
The FABRICATOR: How would you characterize the gap between baby boomers and millennials?
Diane Thielfoldt: There are actually two gaps. I don’t have all of the answers to one of them. It’s the skills gap. What do we do about schools? Where are we partnering with people to address this? How do we get people interested in manufacturing and get them the skills they need? I recognize that this is a real problem.
So I try and focus my efforts on the other gap that is connected to the skills gap. If most of the hiring is being done by baby boomers, what is the gap between those boomers and the millennials they are hiring?
What is interesting to me is that so many people in the metal fabricating industry own their own business. They are small to medium-sized companies. What fascinates me is that they aren’t recruiting their own kids into the business, and they can’t figure out why they can’t recruit their kids’ friends. That’s how it plays out to me. And I’m not trying to make light of it.
I think part of what is missing is that the folks that would be in a hiring position—whether they are the manager, the owner, or the CEO—have a perception of their business as old. While they intellectually know that they have modernized their facilities, they still think that no one wants to come into the business because it’s dirty and those types of jobs are going to get offshored.
All of the things that actually aren’t true anymore are part of a strongly held mental model. So that is a gap unto itself: the gap between the reality and the perception that the folks doing the hiring have of their own businesses.
There are other areas that highlight the gap. One of them plays out around work ethic. The thinking is that everyone that is younger doesn’t want to work an eight-hour day, let alone the 10 to 12 hours that were once needed to build a business. So the conversations around entitlement and work ethic are perpetuated. The question that the baby boomers don’t step back and ask is “What does it really take?” If your business is being run differently now, then maybe there are different ways to approach the workplace.
Baby boomers also are a bit dismissive of technology. They say if they hire young people, they’ll just be on their phones all day. These companies should step back and ask what the business application is for a group of employees who understand that technology. Can the company take advantage of the way the young people are networked and how influential they are within their own peer group? That has payoffs. But it’s easier to say that it takes too much effort to hire them.
The top 10 employers of the millennial generation are the armed forces, fast food, and retail. There is a lot of talent out there looking for employment. I’m sure that the wages in metal fabricating are more than competitive with fast food and retail.
So these companies have some funding. They have career tracks and other opportunities that don’t exist in fast food or retail, but they need to go and meet the candidates or the recruits where they are. These companies need millennials that are great at recruiting one another. So if a metal fabricator doesn’t have exposure to the millennials and they aren’t part of the team, they need to go get one.
The FABRICATOR: How would you describe the typical millennial?
Thielfoldt: There are stereotypes that they don’t work hard and have a slacker work ethic. I don’t find that to be true at all.
They work very hard. It just looks different.
Let’s use the smart device because it comes up all the time. If someone has a smart device in their hand at 3 p.m., the assumption is they aren’t thinking about work, but maybe at 3 a.m. they are. Do companies have the flexibility to accommodate that?
Millennials are always on. Companies need to figure out how to take advantage of that.
Millennials also recognize that they do need to work hard. What is different from other generations is that they want to know why. For many baby boomers, we just think we have to work hard and we really never pause to ask why we are doing this. But now you have a generation that says, “Why are we doing this?”
When it comes to the workplace, everyone thinks all millennials want to do is have fun, like they are going to the playground. That often manifests itself as a bit of informality in conversations and how they dress in the workplace. Maybe it’s related to informality around schedules. If the requirement of the job is from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., clearly communicating those expectations and requirements is necessary. Many baby boomers have it in their head that if they talk about flexible schedule that they have to do the same thing for everyone, which means that no one will be at the company except for between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
I just think baby boomers have gotten wrapped up in doing things a certain way and maybe can’t reconcile that there might be a better way to do it.
The FABRICATOR: Do you see manufacturing as an industry where millennials can find careers?
Thielfoldt: I do. Part of the reason I say that is that in a manufacturing facility there are expectations for people to do more than one thing. That is very appealing to millennials.
The No. 1 reason that millennials quit is because they are bored. If a business has either limitations in terms of monetary or human resources or is growing so fast that it can’t hire quickly enough, that’s a stimulating and challenging environment for millennials. But they don’t know that’s what it looks like inside that door of the manufacturing company.
One of the things that is missing is people talking about the excitement. Millennials want to know several things: Am I going to be able to be entrepreneurial? Am I going to get to try new things? Am I going to interact with new people?
The FABRICATOR: What can metal fabricators do to reach out to this demographic more successfully? Reach out to middle schoolers?
Thielfoldt: There is probably more than a little bit of truth to that. I know it sounds dramatic, but you are trying to capture people when you can still get their attention. But you are also trying to capture the attention of the parents, teachers, and coaches.
So a manufacturer’s appeal is within the community. Working through a school probably will allow a company to make the greatest number of connections for the effort expended. But reaching out also applies to supporting the sporting teams and supporting other community efforts.
You have to reach the kids. It could be through robotics, sponsoring contests, or taking your kid to workday programs. All of those things can help.
At the same time, talk about what the opportunities are. What is the potential for a career? I think part of the reason that young people don’t select careers in manufacturing is that they don’t know what it looks like. And they really want to be able to paint themselves in the picture. What would they be doing? Who will show them what it looks like?
Are metal fabricating companies doing career fairs? Are the people recruiting millennials the same age as the people that they are recruiting? Millennials are very peer-connected. They want to hear it from others their age.
At the trade school level, folks are not just recruiting there but teaching there. They are meeting potential recruits in the classroom.
Most don’t expect hiring young people to be quite so hard or quite so time-consuming. But if you really want it, what are you willing to do to get it?
The FABRICATOR: What can a business do to keep millennials engaged once they are hired?
Thielfoldt: First, one of the adjustments that baby boomers have to make is realize that anyone they hire is not going to stay as long as they did on a job. That doesn’t mean things won’t change. But even with the recession, millennials are much more likely to quit a job without another job to go to. They are much more likely to change professions.
However, even if these young people are there a short time, steps can be taken to engage them. At the top of the list is making them feel that the work they are doing is challenging them and makes a difference to the organization. And it would be icing on the cake if in some way it made a difference in the world.
Where that may be challenging for a leader or a manager is that those aspects of a job may not matter to them and, as a result, they may not think it matters at all. Those leaders and managers need to make those considerations.
Millennials need to know what they are doing, what they are learning, what they will do with what they are learning, and what their piece of the work has to do with the end product. Do the millennials get to see the customer that buys the end product? Do those connections get made explicitly so that the millennials know that what they are doing makes a difference?
Some people argue that they should figure that out on their own, but I’m not sure everyone figures that out without assistance. Some coaching is needed.
Another way that manufacturing companies can attract people and keep them engaged is the whole green movement. Companies are working to be more energy-efficient and be more mindful of natural resources. Having conversations about that, highlighting those things, and letting people know that you are always looking for input are opportunities to reach out to millennials.
The key is that when a baby boomer hears “Why do you do this this way?” they shouldn’t hear it as a complaint or criticism. It is coming from a point of curiosity.
Millennials grew up in the world of gaming. In these games, they know what the expectations are, and they do it. They are immediately recognized, good, bad, or indifferent. If a millennial does well in the workplace, will there be recognition? When will they be able to get to the next challenge?
So if you are hiring people that seem to be immature emotionally or that need more of your time or direction, then figure out a way to address that. Help them prioritize the day, the week, or the month. Then you can continue to step it up.
It probably takes two to three times more time to launch millennials and accelerate their learning curve than it took with other generations.
The FABRICATOR: Are you optimistic about millennials entering the manufacturing workforce?
Thielfoldt: I’m very optimistic, and part of that is from being a baby boomer. We are very optimistic about everything.
What I really appreciate about the millennials is that so many businesses today are going so fast and require a level of sustained energy that not all baby boomers are willing to do and the millennials are. If we are going to keep the pace, it is quite probable that a great portion of that can be shouldered by millennials.
I think what is troubling to millennials and potentially troubling to the economy is that they are pretty sure that they are going to work for a long time. So how do they sustain the energy?
They are asking questions like “Is work/life integration attainable?” or “How do you get it?” I think their questions can push us organizationally into rethinking how people balance work with their lives outside the workplace.
They bring a lot to the workplace. A lot of enthusiasm, a sense of humor. They are very excited to take on leadership roles, which is a little bit in contrast to the Gen Xers. Who wouldn’t want someone standing in front of your office and saying, “Put me in, coach.”
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