The right generation at the right time
By Peter G. Martin, Ph.D.
At almost every industry conference I have attended over the past five years, at least one presenter has bemoaned the millennial generation as too lazy and unfit to assume the responsibilities of industrial operations. The presenters are often baby boomers, like me, and I have been somewhat inclined to accept their conclusions—until recently.
When I researched generational characteristics for a presentation of my own, what I learned surprised me. Instead of the industrial misfits they had been made out to be, the millennial generation might be exactly what industry needs today.
The distribution of talent across the industry is way out of whack. In many companies a fairly large population of baby boomers is preparing to leave the workforce. But the industrial downsizing and hiring freezes, and industrial employees’ population dip of the 1990s and early 2000s, did not produce enough generation Xers to replace the departing older workforce. So it becomes the responsibility of the people born during that time—the millennials—to fill the gap. This is more than a demographic issue. Millennials are so fundamentally different from baby boomers that, on the surface, it is difficult to imagine how these new candidates can provide anywhere near the performance of their predecessors.
Baby boomers tend to be highly work-centric, independent, and goal oriented. We are competitive, confident, and prosperity-focused. This is what industry has required for the past three decades to produce and use technologies to meet growing demand for industrial plant performance optimization. This is the generation that gave us multivariable predictive control, software simulation, safety instrumented systems, virtual reality systems, real-time decision support, real-time performance measurement, enterprise control systems, and so much more. Most baby boomers believe that using their innovations effectively requires the same human characteristics they applied to develop the technology in the first place. Ironically though, millennials actually have unique characteristic that put them in a much better position to utilize, capitalize, and expand on baby-boomer innovations.
For starters, millennials are looking for meaningful careers. They are not just in it for the money; they want to make a difference. This makes them ideal candidates for industrial and automation careers, because we are already truly focused on solving many of the great problems of society: inexpensive and clean energy, clean water, world hunger, world health, and a clean environment.
Millennials tend to be much more savvy with technology, especially in the use and application of digital technologies. Over the past few decades the automation industry has developed some of the world’s most sophisticated technologies. But industrial automation is not an entertainment vehicle—it is a vehicle that can have true impact. Baby boomers often make fun of the millennials’ frequent video gaming, but it is exactly that skill set that makes these potential industrial workers so valuable.
Millennials often want to be more collaborative and connected. Industrial companies, on the other hand, have grown islands of organizations to deal with the complexities of industrial operations and the multiple disciplines that have evolved to deal with that complexity. These islands have worked up to a point, but communications among them now is poor, when it exists at all. Industrial executives are calling for higher levels of collaboration and connectivity across their organizations, because they know that solving problems using multiple disciplines typically has better results. Baby boomers struggle with open collaboration and communications. Millennials thrive on it.
Millennials are looking for lifetime training and instant gratification, which is exactly what modern automation technologies provide. Humans learn by feedback control. Automation systems are based on feedback control. Combining these facts enables real-time decision support environments with instantaneous performance feedback.
And finally, millennials tend to be very good at multitasking. As the overall workforce has been downsized over the past couple of decades and the informational capabilities of automation systems has increased, every person within an industrial operation will have to perform a broad range of overlapping duties. Multitasking will be essential.
This is not to say millennials will not be challenged as they enter the industrial workforce—they certainly will. However, when baby boomers in automation and industry stop complaining about how different this emerging generation of workers is and start helping to capitalize on those differences, the millennial workforce will take industry to performance levels never previously imagined. Let this be the baby boomers’ final gift!