THE BLOG
10/08/2013 07:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Connecting the Youth With the Next Generation of Manufacturing

What if you told your kids there was a place where they could hold ideas in the palms of their hands? A place where shiny materials delivered by trucks, rails, planes, and boats from around the globe are transformed into fun and exciting toys. Where humans and machines are on the same team and teach one another new things every day. They might not believe it when you tell them that place is a manufacturing facility, but National Manufacturing Day, last Friday, Oct. 4, aimed to help change that.

Despite manufacturing's foundational role in the U.S. economy, it's safe to say that most of today's youth know little about it beyond Industrial Revolution coverage in Social Studies class. And by the time they enter the workforce -- if they haven't done so already -- that disconnect is so great that manufacturing as a career is becoming further and further from a consideration. There seems to be this misperception that most U.S. manufacturing jobs have been outsourced and those that remain are low-skilled, low-paying ones that nobody wants.

As manufacturing demographics increasingly fall on the side of older workers, the second annual National Manufacturing Day came at a pivotal time. A 2011 Skills Gap Report from the National Association of Manufacturers reported that 67 percent of companies had a moderate-to-severe shortage of available, qualified workers, and 56 percent anticipated the shortage to worsen in the next 3 to 5 years. Not long after this research surfaced, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data highlighted that in 2012 the average manufacturing worker's age was roughly 50 years old and half of that workforce was 10 to 15 years away from retirement.

Accounting for the aging workforce issue, in ThomasNet's 2013 Industry Market Barometer report, it was concluded that 75 percent of manufacturing workers will need to come from Generation-Y by 2025 for the sector to continue growing at its current rate. That leaves little time to renovate the outdated perception and lack of information Millennials have about manufacturing, which makes early interaction with the shop floor through high school classes, summer camps, and field trips, in addition to events such as National Manufacturing Day all the more crucial.

As put by Jay Timmons, National Association of Manufacturers' President and CEO, "Manufacturing Day is a great opportunity to shift Americans' perception that it is not our grandfather's manufacturing anymore."

In fact, today's manufacturing careers are far from those followed by most people's grandfathers. There are opportunities across a broad range of high-tech areas, from electronics and mechanical engineering to software, IT and networking as well as industrial engineering, process engineering and project management. These cutting-edge skills are in demand, right here in the U.S. And as manufacturing technology continues to pervade deeper into plants and global supply chains, the number of opportunities is poised to grow.

Last Friday, manufacturers, universities, associations, and other community and national organizations made a concerted effort to not just educate the public on manufacturing's role in America, but also to help them realize how it's evolved into an innovative and highly skilled working environment. Offering factory tours, career workshops, and open houses, students as well as those already in the workforce experienced a behind-the-scenes peek into why modern manufacturing is a viable career option.

According to Timmons, the annual celebration is geared toward raising awareness, and this year he called for supporters around the country to do their part. Prior to the event, he said, "[Manufacturing] day is an engaging way to attract young people and get them excited about pursuing a career in a technology-driven, innovative environment that will also provide a good-paying job. We encourage all manufacturers and manufacturing associations to get involved and share what we already know--manufacturing makes us strong."

Last year's celebration drew more than 7,000 people to 240 events across 37 states, and this year's was significantly larger. Although the final attendance numbers have yet to be calculated, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association's Marketing Director, Pat Lee, reported that this year's celebration was more than triple in size. 824 events were held in the U.S.'s 48 contiguous states, with several others in Canadian provinces and Puerto Rico.

"Manufacturing Day is truly having an impact and it's becoming a big deal in many communities," Lee said. "Speakers from participating companies were explaining to kids how they wouldn't be successful without line workers and quality assurance personnel, and then they actually gave those people the opportunity to talk about why their jobs are important. Most of these kids had never stepped foot inside a manufacturing plant and I think it was a real eye opener for them."

As today's younger generations are more technologically adept than ever before, the corresponding evolution of high-skilled, technical manufacturing career options has to be communicated more effectively. It's not the same manufacturing environment as it was 50 years ago and the same will likely be said 50 years from now. In addition to National Manufacturing Day, Lee explained that Fabricators & Manufacturers Association and other organizations are working year-round to connect younger generations with manufacturing.

The U.S. has a major challenge before it, and although it's not one that can be addressed just one day each year, the hundreds of grassroots events that made up the second annual National Manufacturing Day should bring great momentum to build upon.