Don’t call it a comeback: Manufacturing, mobile, and the modern candidate

Mateo Cavasotto

Mateo Cavasotto · Feb 01

Like it or not, manufacturing has a bit of an image problem that started almost 40 years ago. It ties to factories closing down and an unwarranted narrative around “unskilled labor” that pervades to this day. The first large-scale job loss was in the 1980s, the second in the 2000s. Sandwiched in between was the 1990s when stories about sweatshops, child labor, and other issues first emerged. Overall, between 1980 and 2005, U.S. manufacturing lost more than 4.5 million jobs, or 24 percent of its employment, according to Brookings. From 2007 to 2009, we saw another 2 million jobs of these jobs disappear as the sector finally hit rock bottom.

No surprise that the industry’s reputation soured during this time, marred by reports of substandard working conditions and limited opportunities for growth. Many blamed low wages and the rise of offshoring. Younger generations didn’t even consider the possibility of these jobs, with one study showing that only 32 percent of Gen Z and 18 percent of Millennials had manufacturing suggested to them as a career. As a result, SHRM reported on a 2018 study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute that estimated “as many as 2.4 million factory jobs could remain unfilled through 2028 because of a tight labor market and a lack of people with the needed skills.”

What’s Next

Today, as is often the case, uncertainty abounds, and manufacturing is at a crossroads due to a global pandemic on top of a fraught few decades. Wrote manufacturing CEO Omar Asali, “Our recent recruiting difficulties underscore the need to address the talent pool challenge aggressively and systemically …To be clear, this is not just about increasing compensation and benefits; this is also about replacing the stigma currently attached to manufacturing labor with the social standing and appreciation these essential workers deserve.” There’s no doubt he’s right, but the question is, how?

A lot has changed since the 1980s, 1990s, and even the early 2000s, and yet, the challenges of image and reputation persist. Overhauling these will require more than a quirky PR campaign or two. No, to address the industry’s issues and start engaging younger candidates, manufacturing needs to look at not only how it operates but also how it communicates with and, in turn, attracts talent.

Here are some factors to consider:

Like the rest of the world, manufacturers are emerging from an experience that’s changed both the work they do and what this work means. It isn’t the same industry it was 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years ago, and it’s time to share a new story with new candidates.

Asali summarized, “We must redefine the manufacturing world as one that provides its workforce with opportunity for employment and advancement and the chance to participate fully in defining our future.” Recognizing the opportunity to reinvent the space, manufacturing needs to adopt new talent practices. These strategies should put younger candidates at the center of the narrative, using mobile tech to reach them where they are and explore what’s possible in this sector.

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