Millennials: The Manufacturing Innovation Opportunity

Employers must recognize that millennials want to constantly grow. They want to tackle new challenges and new opportunities. As a result, leadership must be prepared to give employees responsibilities that they will regard as meaningful and contributing to their own personal growth.

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Ivan SeseljIvan Seselj

Despite some challenging times over the last 30 years, manufacturing now seems to be on the rebound. Since the end of 2010, more than 730,000 manufacturing jobs have been added to the U.S. economy and analysts estimate three million new manufacturing jobs will be created over the next decade.

Although that sounds like good news, manufacturers now face another issue. How do they fill that volume of jobs with engaged workers who will drive the innovation required to ensure continued growth and success? How will they retain workers and the knowledge they will pick up on the job, to maintain workforce continuity?

This situation is particularly daunting when you consider that most of the workers manufacturing will target for these new jobs are millennials, the 54 million adult Americans between 18 and 34 who make up a third of the U.S. workforce. It’s going to be critical for manufacturers to understand what makes millennials tick.

Millennials have gotten a bad, and I believe unwarranted, rap. They are often stereotyped as lazy, entitled and high maintenance. Older workers complain that millennials whine about doing more menial work, are too focused on salary and career advancement, and refuse to comply with authority.

While there may be some truth to that characterization, I believe manufacturers need to focus instead on how those so-called negatives can be properly understood and leveraged.

First and foremost, it’s essential for manufacturers to accept that millennials don’t work for you, they work with you. Millennials are often criticized for asking too many questions, for challenging accepted processes, and for their so-called arrogance in not simply accepting “the way things are done here.” Smart manufacturers will recognize that, in reality, millennials simply want a say in what’s happening on the job — and that they could be a great source of innovation and improvement suggestions. They don’t just want to be told to do something. They want to question, challenge, and be heard. Unlike previous generations, they don’t want to wait to pay their dues first. They want to be heard now.

Smart manufacturers can capture the energy and enthusiasm at the core of that attitude by embracing the innovative instincts exhibited by their millennial employees and channeling it to transform processes and production. Take, for example, the way in which manufacturers traditionally communicate with their employees. For years, they have relied on procedure manuals, signage posted around the plant or in the lunchroom, or more recently, the mass email – all of which will not be effective with millennials. Instead, they want to click through six options, not read six chapters of a manual. They want to check out an app, watch a 30-second video and then react with emojis, not with lengthy memos.

Embracing such changes can go a long way toward connecting with, retaining and engaging millennial employees, but manufacturers shouldn’t stop there. They must also recognize that millennials want to constantly grow. They want to tackle new challenges and new opportunities. As a result, leadership must be prepared to give employees responsibilities that they will regard as meaningful and contributing to their own personal growth.

With that in mind, manufacturers should focus on engaging employees in those processes that make the company productive or in areas where they are experiencing issues. Consider creating assignments that will challenge them and play to their individual strengths and areas of interest. Seek their opinions as to how to improve the way a specific job or process is completed, and show a willingness to actually make changes per their recommendations. Even if work assignments are relatively simple, emphasize how their contribution is making a difference, not just to the company’s growth but to the pursuit of excellence and innovation.

Manufacturers should also consider building cross-generational teams to identify areas of improvement. Doing so will benefit both newer, millennial employees (who can build their skill sets by learning from more experienced team members) and the senior team members (who should be encouraged to leverage the energy, creativity, and technology know-how that the millennials bring to the mix). It’s essential, however, to recognize that millennials generally want a coach, not a boss. They want to feel supported and valued by the company’s leaders. A positive response to that desire for mentorship will lead to increased productivity and a stronger tie to the company on the part of millennials.   

Increased productivity also ties into the manufacturer’s ability to empower employees through the use of technology. Millennials hate to waste their time doing the little things that more senior employees sometimes take for granted — filling out expense reimbursement forms, attending in-person training sessions, and so on. Investing in technology that more effectively accomplishes these tasks will drastically reduce the administrative time (and potential for human error) these activities require, while simultaneously appealing to tech-savvy millennials.

Bottom line: millennials rely on their smartphones, tablets, and web apps to access and store information on virtually any topic you can name. They want to have that same power and flexibility in the workplace. Enabling them and encouraging them to identify and drive business improvements and innovation will make them more productive. Just as important, it will create a relationship that can take advantage of their capacity for change while building a level of loyalty that will have a significant impact on employee growth and retention.             

Ivan Seselj is CEO of Promapp.

        

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