Manufacturers have a lot to do these days. Many have entered new markets as tried-and-true industries have slowed down. Many more are involved in instituting lean manufacturing principles to keep prices competitive while still making a profit. All of this requires skilled personnel, and one of the challenges facing manufacturers across all industries is the shortage of new, skilled workers. That adds another item to the to-do list: getting the next generation interested in pursuing a career in manufacturing.

Part of this effort involves dispelling old notions that the factory is grimy, mindless work. As manufacturing plants have evolved over the past twenty years, machines have gotten more high-tech, and workers more multifaceted. Multitasking has become the norm and as everyone wears more and more hats, there’s a constant element of learning and challenge to every job in the plant.

That challenge is something that many middle school and high school students don’t realize is there. We have to communicate that manufacturing provides a stable, lucrative career with lots of growth potential—but we have to go beyond that message. After all, think back to your own high school days and how much those words—“stability,” “growth potential”—meant to you. We need to speak to students on their level, keeping in mind their priorities and interests. And they love a challenge, they love to compete. From video games, to sports, to working hard to make honor roll every semester, students are constantly working to be better than they were the day before and to reach new heights. If they feel that manufacturing is a dead end job, no wonder they aren’t pursuing it as a career path.

But today manufacturing workers are more like industrial athletes than cogs in an assembly line. Every day they use their brains and their bodies to find better ways of doing things. They work to limit defects and produce more. There’s a sense of learning and refining every single day. And that extends to management roles as well. How many projects did you quote last week? How many were successful? What was the total dollar amount? How can we do better this week? You set up a plan, benchmark it against expected results and take corrective action. No matter what your position in the manufacturing plant, every day is like a game.

And for the first time, everyone is truly playing on the same team. The suggestion boxes of yesterday have been replaced by the group meetings of today. When manufacturers institute lean principles they turn to their workers to figure out the best ways to improve. Today, everyone in the plant has a voice, a voice that’s heard and respected.

We need to let students know that the behaviors and attitudes that have already taken them so far will bring them continued fulfillment and success in the world of manufacturing. They’ll quickly discover the more “practical” benefits of manufacturing for themselves. For now, we simply have to get them on our team.

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