Volume 18 | Issue 2 | Year 2015

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After years of steady progress, American Crane, which manufactures cranes, hoists and other material handling equipment, expects significant growth this year, and is investing confidently in machinery, software and new people.

Karen’s wonderful story is playing out all across the country. Indeed, ThomasNet’s most recent Industry Market Barometer® (IMB) survey of North American manufacturers shows companies growing on all cylinders. Like American Crane, they’re hiring and investing to capitalize on more growth to come. The research erases any doubts that America’s manufacturing engine is in high gear…or does it?

For now, the industry appears to be roaring ahead—but a deeper look at our numbers shows the makings of a “perfect talent storm.” Many factors are converging that could stall or derail it.

First, according to IMB, 38 percent of the manufacturers we surveyed will retire within ten years, and seven out of ten have no succession plan. There is a ready source of talent to replace them—Millennials (age 18-32)—who are quickly becoming America’s largest living generation this year. However, at most manufacturing companies, they represent no more than 25 percent of the workforce, and eight out of ten manufacturers have no plans to increase those numbers.

The IMB research shows a set of negative perceptions that are making the talent storm even darker. Forty-six percent of our respondents report that younger people still perceive manufacturing as “blue collar” work. Another 43 percent believe that this generation lacks the work ethic and discipline to succeed. These perceptions threaten to keep Millennials away from the industry at a time when they’re sorely needed. Without a steady pipeline of young workers to replace retiring Baby Boomers, manufacturers will not be able to sustain their momentum.

Fortunately, some manufacturing executives are already stepping up to turn the situation around. Karen Norheim is one great example, and Tracy Tenpenny, Partner, Tailored Label Products, is another. Both of them believe that they can make a local footprint on an important national issue. I’m pleased to share their stories in hopes of inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

Showing New Generations that “Manufacturing is Cool”
The thought of losing ground because of a worker shortage is what keeps Karen Norheim up at night. Every job opening at American Crane is getting harder and harder to fill, whether in management or on the plant floor. For now, the company is strong—but to expand into new areas, it must attract more people. American Crane needs to convince new generations that, as Karen says, “manufacturing is cool.”

To do so, Karen and her colleagues at American Crane are using a variety of strategies. They are active in their community – serving on the advisory boards of local colleges and technical schools, such as Penn State Great Valley, building a presence as an employer. In addition, they conduct regular plant tours and offer informal internship and mentorship programs. Karen is active with groups including Women in Manufacturing and U.S. Women in Nuclear, sharing or presenting on what she’s done and encouraging her peers to take action. Believing that it’s never too early to start that flicker of interest, she recently made a short video about manufacturing, starring her young niece and nephew.

Ten Commandments that Make a Difference
Tracy Tenpenny shares Karen’s sense of urgency. His company, a custom manufacturer of high performance labels, has developed a plan to attract Millennials and keep them happy. It’s working – with close to 50 percent of its staff representing this new generation.

The plan starts with a good work environment. TLP has received numerous honors as a “best place to work” and a Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year. As a result, when the company posts a job, it’s inundated with applications.

Tracy and his colleagues also created their Ten Commandments for Attracting and Retaining Millennials, which they follow religiously. Among those “rules”:

  • Cross-train employees in three job skills/functions to give them more reasons to stay;
  • Embrace cloud computing & social media platforms that fit in with Millennials’ work styles;
  • Offer progressive benefits such as wellness programs using FitBit;
  • Boost Millennials’ pride by encouraging community volunteer work.

For TLP, these efforts are paying dividends. Last year, younger team members played an important role in the company’s record sales and double-digit growth.

Embracing Millennials’ Unique Talents
Tracy and Karen disagree with the naysayers who question Millennials’ suitability for manufacturing. They say this generation not only works “hard and smart”; they’re technology savvy, collaborative, and socially/environmentally conscious, too.

Judging by that description, manufacturing jobs are perfect for Millennials. Our latest IMB shows that they can make a social impact working with sustainable and green technologies, solar energy, and wind power. In addition, innovations in design and manufacturing software, automation/robotics, and 3D printing make manufacturing the new “hot tech sector.”

But manufacturers need to reach across the aisle and show Millennials that this is the case. Our IMB provides a glimmer of hope that it’s happening. For instance, many companies now offer apprenticeship programs, but these aren’t applicable to all manufacturers, and they’re no panacea.

We have to do more. If we give in to the misperceptions about Millennials swirling around us, and accept the talent storm as status quo, then we are only shortchanging ourselves.

Karen Norheim and Tracy Tenpenny provide two powerful examples of the difference each of us can make. By joining with them now, we can ensure the continued vitality of an industry that we all treasure.

As the president of ThomasNet®, part of Thomas Industrial Network®, Mark Holst-Knudsen is passionate about being part of a family-owned business and stewarding ThomasNet’s mission to connect buyers and sellers of industrial/commercial products.

In his role as president Mr. Holst-Knudsen is responsible for the overall strategic direction and profitability of the company. Through his leadership, ThomasNet continues to improve the comprehensive content, design and functionality of its Product Sourcing and Supplier Discovery Platform, ThomasNet.com, to meet the evolving needs of serious buyers and drive more sales inquiries to suppliers. He also oversees the development and expansion of other Thomas programs to help manufacturers and distributors grow and operate more efficiently. These include Results Powered Marketing (RPM), an agency marketing service, and Thomas Enterprise Solutions, a group that enables suppliers to syndicate their product data across systems and sales channels.

Mr. Holst-Knudsen holds an MBA in marketing and finance from New York University (NYU) Stern, and earned his undergraduate degree in music from Connecticut College.

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