How manufacturing can attract the best and brightest next-generation workers

  • By Paul Donnelly
  • May 31, 2020
  • Workforce Development

By Paul Donnelly

As more experienced workers retire from the manufacturing workforce, the sector faces a future with a growing skills gap and a greater number of unfilled jobs. Initiatives to boost the manufacturing workforce, like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) “Creators Wanted” national tour that recently kicked off, are excellent steps in boosting the profile of the industry and, hopefully, encouraging younger generations to take interest in manufacturing career paths.

While established tech giants and new venture startups lure talent with ping pong tables and beer taps, manufacturing can tap into a sincere drive to solve the world’s most pressing problems. A career working for a leading social media platform may come with the latest office perks, but can it really compare with a career focused on meeting the world’s energy needs today while preserving the environment for their kids? Can the shine of social media–focused companies really compete with challenges like reengineering basic materials like plastics to be more recyclable and meet requirements for a true circular economy? If newer workers are shown the entire picture, I highly doubt it. That is why initiatives, such as the above-referenced NAM initiative, are sorely needed.


What will attract the next generation of workers to manufacturing is understanding the impact their career can have on solving these larger societal issues. That is why a key component of the NAM initiative involves outreach to students, educators, and parents to positively influence the perception of manufacturing as a place to make a difference. Major industrial companies can work to propagate this messaging as well, even partnering with colleges and universities to make themselves and their industries more visible to students, while positioning manufacturing careers in positive ways. It is a fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge about the manufacturing world that has created a lack of students who express or show interest in pursuing careers within our field. The industry, schools, parents, and the media all have a responsibility to educate the public in order to change perceptions. To complement these efforts, the industry also needs to modernize through digital initiatives and directly connect themselves to the topics of sustainability and the future of energy.


Most manufacturers are in the midst of significant initiatives to digitalize their operations. For example, an area in which they can see significant returns is in helping newer engineers and other workers become productive faster. Firms can leverage artificial intelligence to help provide in-context learning and guidance, so less experienced employees can more easily complete their work. Artificial intelligence and automation can also be used to remove some of the mundane, low-value tasks that turn off next-generation workers. It goes without saying that as the rest of the world modernizes, industries that do not follow suit will be at a major disadvantage when it comes to hiring new talent.


Sustainability is top of mind for next-generation workers. Many would easily prioritize meaningful work over other perks if it is connected to helping develop a sustainable future. As a significant portion of the world’s sustainability challenges are associated with the process manufacturing industries, specifically energy and plastics, these are two fields where opportunities abound to make a difference. Digital transformation initiatives underway in these fields in particular will give new workers simply unmatched opportunities to have a real and meaningful impact on society and the environment.

Through targeted and continuous edu­­cation, modernization, and sustainability efforts, we should expect to see a change in mindset when it comes to people pursuing careers in manufacturing. It is also important to consider that it is not only the future workforce who can make a difference—it is also the current workforce who can affect change and apply their skills and expertise to solving these pressing societal problems. This can aid in retaining key talent who will be critical in helping newer workers reach their potential faster.


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About The Authors

Paul Donnelly is the industry marketing director for engineering and construction at AspenTech. Donnelly has more than 25 years of experience in engineering, construction, and supply chain management with global business responsibilities. He earned an undergraduate degree in geology and has an MBA from the University of Massachusetts.