May 25, 2012
A 2012 salary survey by IndustryWeek found that only 2% of survey respondents in the manufacturing industry are 21 to 29 years old. Students interviewed for this article characterized manufacturing as slow, out of date and, simply put, unsexy. The lack of interest in manufacturing from the younger generation erodes the industry’s future in two ways. First, there are no young workers to backfill retirees and second, there are fewer fresh ideas spurring innovation and growth. The industry can reverse this trend by creating more interesting companies.
The Harvard Business Review1 comments that highly educated individuals are looking for greater “autonomy and intellectual stimulation.” These are not current features of manufacturing. Rather, they characterize cash-strapped, romantic startups with big dreams. Consequently, start-ups attract smart, independent workers to wear multiple hats in an environment that provides little managerial oversight. This entrepreneurial spirit is currently completely out of sync with the world of manufacturing.
Steve Stoddard, a student from MIT-Sloan’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, confirms this perception and says that most people view manufacturing as “not fast-paced and not exciting. Doing something ‘new’ means improving a small valve to improve performance by 0.0001%” This is why Stoddard has shifted towards entrepreneurship – he believes his manufacturing background can help him “see around corners” and design a business that maximizes its operational impact.
Similarly, David Linders, another aspiring entrepreneur from the LGO program, describes “seeing around corners” as effectively designing a product for his startup with manufacturing in mind. “We’re trying to design something new that is scalable and manufacturable. If you design something that can’t be manufactured, you have to go back to square one,” he says. Linders believes that by knowing the manufacturing environment, he can optimize the design of a product for highly efficient manufacturing.
These are just two examples of young, smart, independent individuals, who are genuinely interested in manufacturing, but go off to start a company instead. Their path serves as a compromise between their profession and their need for stimulation. So, how can a “boring” industry like manufacturing counteract the loss of its best talent? By painting a compelling vision of applied innovation that solves big problems in addition to saving money.
This July, MIT will release a report on manufacturing entitled The Productive Innovation Economy publication. In a preview of the report at the MIT Future of Manufacturing conference, Associate Professor Olivier de Weck listed some exciting innovations in manufacturing. They include:
- Smart automation
- Lightweight materials
- Advanced IT
- Flexible electronics
- Rapid prototyping
- Using recycled materials
An astute observer will notice that these seven innovations sound like a wish list in any major industry, such as medical devices or energy. Every industry needs better, faster, cheaper inputs and methods. But the difference is in the application. The emphasis on these technologies in manufacturing is about a more efficient process rather than a societal impact. For comparison, the key emphasis on technology in energy is to supply more energy to more users while reducing the carbon footprint to zero. The problems posed in manufacturing are no less real than those of the energy industry. However, they are not exactly what you say you want to do when you grow up.
Ultimately, the younger generation wants their work to have impact on the world. If manufacturers want the next generation to direct their attention at them and not only at mobile apps, they need to paint a compelling vision. This, combined with audacious goals and a nonconformist state of mind, can provide the needed intellectual stimulation. This is not impossible.
In 2009 General Motors collapsed. To redirect their path, they made several decisive decisions, but one of those decisions was to paint an inspiring vision for the future. GM leaders decided to reduce their environmental impact while also being the first to make a subcompact vehicle in America. In the factory where the Chevrolet Sonic is made, energy costs were reduced by 50% and water costs by 20%. Meanwhile, Chevy employees innovated new methods to make an inexpensive car in America. It required inspiration, teamwork, and innovation.
Painting such a compelling mission is not easy. It requires vision and operational execution. But more importantly, it requires courage. Manufacturing needs courageous leaders to step up and navigate the field. Do American manufacturers have the courage to take on this challenge? We should know soon enough, since their future depends on it.
1: “What Businesses Can Learn From Organized Crime,” Marc Goodman, Harvard Business Review, November 2011, pg. 27-30