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  • Writer's pictureTraci Browne

Can We Build A Future Workforce by Making Manufacturing Cool?

Manufacturing Institute study tells us that U.S. manufacturing faces a two-million-worker shortage over the next decade.

The study also asked parents if they would recommend a career in manufacturing to their children and one in three said no. The biggest reasons for that were a fear of jobs moving offshore (75 percent) and lack of stability (66 percent).

Federal government leadership on manufacturing issues, corporate tax policies, and lack of STEM education aside, I think there is a huge missed opportunity for attracting workers that we often overlook. It’s one that can be solved. It is the “cool factor.”

Can manufacturing companies hope to compete with the lure of NASA, DARPA, and Boston Dynamics? How do you compete with a company like KMel Robotics (acquired by Qualcomm earlier this year) that is doing the kind of work featured in the video below?

Whether you are a manufacturer of industrial robotics, or a manufacturer who uses robotics in your assembly plants or manufacturing floor, you need to up your game if you want to attract top talent. You need to show today’s students that manufacturing can be cool too.

Is manufacturing cool?

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the show “How It’s Made” brought in 300,000 viewers for their 2014 premier episode. Their YouTube channel has over 230,000 subscribers. The episode “How It’s Made Chains” has wracked up 2,610,810 views since it was posted about a year ago.

I’d say a few hundred thousand people already think manufacturing is pretty cool. And let’s consider that these “How It’s Made” videos are pretty much just a still camera focused on each function in the manufacturing process with a voice over narration. There are no CGI effects, fancy camera work, or famous actors.

But perhaps even before you can think about making manufacturing cool, you have to let students know about the jobs that are available in manufacturing.

Support and Get Involved in Robotics Programs for Students

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a brilliantly run organization that relies on volunteers. The FIRST mission is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

Many schools have or are trying to start robotics clubs to participate in FIRST and other robotics organizations. These clubs are desperately in need of funds, equipment, and volunteers. Manufacturers could make an early impact on these students by participating in and sponsoring these programs.

Robotics clubs are not just looking for volunteer mentors to help them with the engineering, science, and software aspects of robotics. They could also use expertise in sales (finding sponsors), marketing, and public relations. Your involvement doesn’t just benefit the students.

I spoke to Jim Carr, executive director of Mid-Atlantic Robotics, at the FIRST Semi-finals earlier this year. Carr said, “First encourages these kids to go out and get mentors, they are working with local companies, local companies are working with them. It’s a great conduit for passing information about what your work career would be like and where are the best kids I want to hire.”

Carr also told me that some local companies set up internships for the students; internships that students return to during summers while they are in college and possibly lead to a full-time position after they graduate.

Manufacturing companies could also work with teachers to arrange field trips to their manufacturing facilities, conduct classroom demonstration for STEM students, and participate in career days.

Promote Student and Teacher Involvement in Manufacturing Trade Shows.

If you want to see a roomful of kids who think manufacturing is cool visit the Student Summit at IMTS. There, kids get hands-on experience and context for careers in manufacturing. But the real magic happens when they take that knowledge onto the show floor and see the full-size robots of the miniature versions they were working with lift cars and rapid sort thousands of tiny components.

UBM Canon’s Advanced Manufacturing Trade Show invited teachers to their event so they could see first-hand the future opportunities open to their students.

Many of the teachers I spoke to who were part of that event told me it was the first time they actually understood the career opportunities that were open to their student. They were excited they now had real world knowledge to share with their students.

Manufacturing companies need to encourage trade show organizers to include these experiences at their shows. However, don’t just leave the responsibility to the show organizer. These students are your future workforce so support the show by getting involved.

Exhibitors could sponsor and help pay for teacher and student attendance. Let teachers and students hang out in your booth and listen in on conversations to get a better understanding of what a career in manufacturing might involve. Let them talk to members of your staff who are there about the requirements to get a technological career in manufacturing.

Don’t worry about students and teachers getting in the way. The goodwill points will flow to you when you introduce a prospect to the student in your booth. Just explain to that prospect that your company is giving the student or teacher the opportunity to learn more about jobs in manufacturing. I bet that prospect not only spends more time in your booth but also remembers your company favorably long after the show is over.

Those are a couple of ways we can get the attention of students, but what about the cool factor?

Create Exciting Content

I’ve taken a look at many manufacturers’ websites, and they are not exactly filled with content that would attract teens and young adults. Think about that video above and the videos that Boston Dynamics is putting out. A product focused website and a career section that is nothing but job listings are not going to attract our youth.

Take a look at Emerson’s Career Page. Now take a look at your company’s career page.

What do you think?

Emerson has made a commitment to attracting talent, and their career page shows that. Not only do they talk about the company’s culture and feature employees talking about their jobs at Emerson, but they also aggregate and create great STEM focused content. Part of their We Love Stem initiative includes teaming up with Hank Green, a popular vlogger, to create original content.

The secret sauce to creating a dynamic website that makes potential employees say, “they look really cool to work for” is inspirational content. Create content that inspires people to want to work for you.

Another company I think does a great job creating inspirational content is Lincoln Electric. They single handedly make being a welder hip with their “Made Possible With Lincoln Electric” series.

What I love about this content is that it’s great marketing. They are inspiring people to become welders, welders who will one day buy their products. But it also provides something for employees to share and say proudly, “I work here!”

You don’t have to create high production value videos like Lincoln Electric, or have an extensive website like Emerson to attract top talent. But you do need content that inspires.

Maybe it’s creating your own “How It’s Made” style videos. Perhaps it’s creating experiments kids can try at home to get a feel for work that your engineers, scientists and programmers do.

You can also have your employees talk about how they got where they are today. I did a series of interviews for NextBot magazine (now defunct) to shed some light on different careers in robotics. The idea was to let students know that it takes all kinds of people from many different backgrounds to make up the robotics industry. It was some of the most fun I had with some of the smartest people I had to opportunity to get to know.

When you’re creating content on your website, pretend you are eavesdropping on a conversation between two high school or college students. One tells the other she just got an internship at NASA. The other student just got an internship at your company. Make content that will make that student feel their internship is just as cool if not better than the NASA internship.

Give students and young adults content they can use to show off to their friends. Fill your website with content that makes anyone who comes across it share it on their Social Media channels with the intro, “OMG, this is so awesome!”

And speaking of social media…

Which Social Platforms are You Active In?

Most the GenZ kids I talk to today have never used Twitter. They aren’t very active on Facebook either. They’ve never even heard of LinkedIn. Yet, these are typically the platforms on which companies are active.

I asked my niece who is sixteen, “where do you hang out online? How do you communicate with your friends?” She said all her friends use Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat.

If you are trying to build a future workforce you might want to think about hanging out where teens are talking on Social Media. What are those teens most interested in and how is that content delivered?

Creating a cool Instagram account or Vine account would be a piece of cake. Make your handle XYZCoCareers and start sharing cool videos and photos that get people talking.

Personally, I love photographing my clients’ manufacturing floors. I bring my love of street art to their manufacturing process and capture fun photos. But don’t just limit your videos and photography to the manufacturing floor. Take photos and videos of your products out in the real world. That’s not just good recruiting advice; that’s good marketing advice as well.

For inspiration, I suggest checking out the following Instagram and Vine accounts.

NASA’s Instagram Account (@nasagoddard) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (@NOAAfisheries) General Electric (@generalelectric) General Electric Vine Account U.S. Geological Survey (@usgs)

Let’s all work together to up the cool factor of manufacturing. Let’s make manufacturing a place at which kids look forward to working.

Traci Browne is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing, engineering and science. You can find out more about her at

If you’re interested in talking about creating cool content for your customers and future employees, give me a call at 610.331.2781.

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