Attracting Millennial Talent to Manufacturing


By: Emily Bourne


The topic of millennials in the workforce has been long discussed. There are countless blog posts, articles, books, and research studies conducted in effort to understand preferences, expectations, and values of millennials with varied degrees of success. The stereotypes depicting my generation range from “lazy and entitled” to “work smarter not harder” and everything in between (for the record, I happen to learn towards the more favorable perceptions, but then again, I may be biased). Regardless of where you stand in your view of millennials, it’s clear that as a whole, corporate America hasn’t quite figured out what makes this generation tick. Across the board, companies continuously attempt to navigate the mysterious demands of the millennial workforce with varied approaches. To attract talent, companies tout perk programs like unlimited vacation, opportunities to work remotely, on-premise exercise or mediation spaces, or even “paw-ternity” leave, (where employees are allowed to take time-off to welcome and train a new pet) in attempt to differentiate and attract millennial talent. Before your eyes roll back out of your head, I’d like to put the millennial stereotypes to rest in favor of more productive discussions, specifically as it pertains to the labor shortage challenge facing the manufacturing industry.

While perk programs work well in some industries, the manufacturing industry in particular faces unique challenges in attracting and retaining millennial talent. The industry cannot necessarily flex to the needs of millennials; perks like unlimited time off and the ability to work remotely are not as practical or realistic in manufacturing environments as they can be in other industries. Additionally, there is a disconnect on both sides of the coin; millennials don’t understand the various roles, opportunities, and benefits a job in manufacturing presents. Similarly, manufacturing companies don’t know how to effectively tap into the unique needs and expectations of the next generation of the workforce. Ultimately, this disconnect presents a direct threat to the future of the manufacturing industry, as the talent pool continues to shrink at an alarming pace, and highlights the growing need to address this issue in the short-term. In case you haven’t heard, there’s an enormous looming shortage of labor facing the manufacturing industry in the not-so-distant future. In fact, in the next 2 years, with Gen X retiring and the lack of incoming millennial talent to replace it, an estimated 3.5 million American manufacturing jobs will be left vacant. In order for manufacturers to effectively address the labor shortage issue, it’s important to look at why this industry in particular struggles to understand millennials.

The Perception Problem

One of the primary contributing factors to the impending shortage of talent stems from a fundamental misconception of the manufacturing industry as a whole. Manufacturing has changed significantly as technological advances, automation, and globalization have shifted in recent years. However, many millennials remain uneducated about the opportunities available within the industry. This lack of understanding is partially perpetuated by public school systems, many of which are awarded and incentivized on the basis of how many graduating students go on to attend 4-year colleges and universities. Relative to other industries, a perception issue also exists when it comes to understanding millennial talent. Some common misconceptions held on both sides that contribute to this disconnect are highlighted below.

Manufacturing Misconceptions

  •  Manufacturing work is dirty and unsafe.

  • Manufacturing jobs do not offer job security.

  • Manufacturing jobs do not provide opportunities for upward mobility.

  • Manufacturing jobs do not pay enough (or, to make real money, you need to go to a 4-year college or university).

  • Manufacturing jobs are all manual labor.

  • Manufacturing jobs are “blue collar” only.

Millennial Misconceptions

  • Millennials are afraid to get their hands dirty.

  • Millennials expect to be promoted faster than previous generations.

  • Millennials expect to be paid more than previous generations.

  • Millennials have low company loyalty and are likely to leave.

  • Millennials have expectations which are not conducive to the manufacturing industry (ie: work life balance, extended time-off, flexible work arrangements).

The Opportunity 

The good news is that the manufacturing industry is uniquely positioned to address both the pain points and motivators that drive millennial, which vary from previous generations. While this generation does have different (and arguably higher) expectations of its employers, there are also many issues millennials grapple with financially and job-security wise that have not been as prevalent in previous generations. In many ways, the manufacturing industry is very well equipped to tap into the needs and drivers of millennial talent. Below are key issues where alignment between millennial expectations and manufacturing advantages exist:

Debt/General Financial Insecurity

Manufacturing is well suited to address this challenge because it doesn’t necessarily require employees to complete a 4-year degree program. In turn, this circumvents the hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans traditionally required to obtain a 4 year college degree and allows millennials to enter the workforce (and start earning) faster. Additionally, whereas internships are often unpaid in some industries, apprenticeships offered through manufacturing often provide an accelerated earning path for millennials. Manufacturing also offers very competitive pay relative to other industries. The average salary of manufacturing worker (including benefits) exceeded $82,000 in 2016, exceeding the national median income of about $60,000 in 2016.

Company Loyalty

Unlike previous generations, millennials favor professional growth over job security. They seek continuous learning experiences and are more likely to leave a role when they feel as though they are not being challenged. Within manufacturing, the opportunities to learn new trades and skills are inherently more abundant than in other industries. In addition to developing rotational programs and offering lateral mobility, manufacturing alone has the unique ability to offer employees endless opportunities to grow and learn in ways other industries cannot.


Perhaps in part due to lower company loyalty, millennials face higher rates of unemployment. Among millennials, the unemployment rate is about 7% nationwide (compared to a 3% average across other age groups). This would suggest that the greatest match between labor supply and demand would exist within the millennial workforce. While robotics have significantly reduced the need for manual labor in some manufacturing market segments, the need for technical skills (for example, maintenance, troubleshooting, and problem solving) are increasing as automation does. The upcoming labor shortage will not only increase the demand for technical skills, but will produce a degree of job security not found in other industries.

Demanding Career Expectations

Millennials are no doubt demanding of their employers when it comes to career trajectory and professional development opportunities. We seek experiences specifically to develop autonomy, influencing, and leadership skills, which is often difficult for some companies and industries to offer. However, the rapidly approaching labor shortage within manufacturing indicates the chances of millennials advancing more quickly in their careers compared to other industries. Additionally, the increase in apprenticeship and internship programs for students and recent graduates presents job seekers with broader and more frequent leadership opportunities. Generally speaking, the manufacturing talent gap creates a particularly lucrative industry dynamic for the challenge-seeking, growth-oriented millennial. As the next generation retires, creating a stronger indication that climbing the ladder will serve both the interests of millennials as well as manufacturing companies.

The Solution

To effectively mitigate the impending labor shortage within manufacturing,we need to bridge the disconnect between millennials and manufacturing organizations. This includes taking into account the expectations of millennials and demonstrating how opportunities in manufacturing are well-suited to provide long-term career satisfaction for many generations to come. Addressing the manufacturing myths and tailoring the message to the unique challenges millennials face will hopefully resonate and ultimately reverse incorrect perceptions about the industry.

Getting in front of the talent pool is the first step in amending the millennials/manufacturing misalignment. We know that sponsorship of STEM education in elementary, middle, and high-school classrooms will help to engage students early on, but what we’re missing is manufacturing mentorship programs to help showcase career opportunities and encourage positive associations with the industry moving forward. Investment in trade and vocational options will be equally important, as we expand availability of these programs and continue to build momentum for a strong employment outlook across the industry.


As I mentioned, I tend to hold a more favorable view of millennials (more paw-ternity programs please!), though I do realize my generation has many opportunities to consider and address our own stereotypes. I do believe a combination of educating both parties and continued discussion around industry and generational expectations will help address the talent gap in manufacturing. To ultimately capitalize upon the unique opportunity to address existing challenges experienced by both the manufacturing industry and the millennial workforce, continuing an active dialogue focused on creating awareness, correcting misconceptions, and identifying mutually beneficial solutions is pertinent. I'd love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and ideas on the matter. Please feel free to comment and/or reach out to me at


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 Koeppel, Jeff. “Millennials Don't Belong in Manufacturing? Think Again.” Georgia Pacific, 2018,

Koeppel, Jeff. “Millennials Don't Belong in Manufacturing? Think Again.” Georgia Pacific, 2018,

Loudenback, Tanza. “Middle-Class Americans Made More Money Last Year than Ever Before.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 12 Sept. 2017,