Twenty years ago, Matt Eggemeyer never dreamed that he would become wedded to manufacturing. Newly minted with a bachelor’s degree in history, he thought a desk job in banking awaited him. But when his mother urged him to give his family’s custom manufacturing business a try, he honored her wishes — and never looked back.
Today, he is chief operating officer of Keats Manufacturing, outside of Chicago, and his greatest pleasure is engaging young people in the career that has become his passion.
In the decades since Eggemeyer waded into the family business, technology has invigorated his company — and enriched his professional life — in ways he could never have imagined. For example, this year, Keats is investing in a system that can provide 100 different views of the precision metal parts it makes, so production is virtually flawless. This kind of technology not only gives Keats another competitive advantage; it makes every day an exciting learning opportunity for Eggemeyer and his colleagues.
Eggemeyer is far from an isolated example.
The 1,200 American manufacturers responding to ThomasNet.com’s latest Industry Market Barometer survey on their growth and outlook are effusive in describing how technological advances are improving their companies and invigorating their work life. As a result, they are growing, hiring and increasing their production capacity to meet future demand. These manufacturers say their employees, market leadership, technology, and innovation will help them continue to compete. Nearly seven out of ten (67%) will focus on introducing new or innovative products/services this year.
But at a time when innovations like additive manufacturing (AM) and robotics are opening new opportunities for manufacturers, a crack is slowly forming in this positive picture: Our research reveals a lack of talent from new generations that threatens this sector’s future.
The companies that we surveyed are representative of today’s manufacturing workforce, which is heavily populated by employees who are 45 and older. With Generation Y (18 to 32 years old) expected to make up 75% of the workforce by 2025, and Baby Boomers retiring in droves, manufacturing’s “biological clock” is ticking away.
Indeed, a closer look at our findings reveals a disconnect between the growth of these manufacturers and the lack of young talent to learn the business before older generations exit. Eight out of 10 manufacturers report that Generation Y represents a small fraction of their workforce, and most don’t see this changing soon. These findings point to a need for a collective “succession plan” for the manufacturing sector.
Education and Perceptions Need to Change
Eggemeyer, too, knows that nurturing fresh talent is fundamental to his company’s future. He is constantly persuading neighbors and “friends of friends” in career transitions to give Keats Manufacturing a try.
“I don’t find trained manufacturers; I make them,” he says. His creative approach pays off. Last year, Keats hired and retained 15 new staff members (average age 25), bringing the total number of its employees to 106.
Most of the respondents to our survey (73%) say they believe that young people still have negative perceptions that deter them from considering manufacturing jobs. Many of these manufacturers have developed partnerships with schools to engage their “best and brightest,” and they consider educators important for their future. They continue to call on high schools to offer more skills training, and to increase their emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
As a foundation of our economy, the manufacturing sector is strong, and technology continues to give companies more opportunities to grow. For example, manufacturers’ websites are their No. 1 business-building tactic, online or offline. For the manufacturing sector to benefit most in this era of innovation, however, those who love the industry need to step up efforts to share their passion with the next generation.
A few words from Matt Eggemeyer’s mother changed the course of his life, and made him fall in love with his career. With a similar approach to engaging the next generation, starting at the grassroots level, we can grease the wheels of this $1.9 trillion sector, carrying it toward an even more vibrant future.