manufacturing

Manufacturing workforce mathematics

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Current numbers simply don’t add up if the manufacturing sector hopes to maintain a fit-for-the-future workforce, writes our columnist SJ. Here’s some advice for employers keen to recruit new talent to the sector in 2023


My first written sentence, made with a shiny yellow number 2 lead pencil, was an algebraic equation. Raised by a math teacher, my mother taught me the language of numbers – and the stories they told – before I even learned to ride a bike.

In this column, I have another story to tell, about hiring in advanced manufacturing, and in this one, the numbers just don’t add up. Or, as members of the Gen Z cohort sometimes say: “The math isn’t math-ing.”

I recently had the honour and pleasure of attending the International Conference for Additive Manufacturing. After their sessions, I made a point of speaking to panellists about their perspectives on the job market.

I’m happy to report back that many were optimistically hiring. They had “tons of positions open”, they told me. I expressed surprise because, from a personal perspective, I’ve been seeing record layoffs and industry colleagues struggling to get rehired. For the last year, my LinkedIn feed has been filled with contacts being laid off, companies going bankrupt and start-ups disappearing almost overnight.

The more sage members of the community were quick to point out that many of the layoffs were happening at specific types of companies, and in particular, those that manufacture machines.

In other words, it’s simply a reflection of “too much supply, not enough demand”, they told me, and not something for the advanced manufacturing sector as a whole to be overly concerned about.

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At the same time, one of the more prestigious firms reported continued record growth for the industry, increasing numbers of patents, and even hinted at potential job security into the future, thanks to the large demand they were seeing for employees.

From my perspective, this last point is where “the math isn’t math-ing.” Why, I wondered, am I seeing this complete disconnect between the dismal situation seen on my LinkedIn account and hubristic industry reporting?

Make it add up!

It’s time to put our yellow number 2 pencils to work. I imagine the math problem might read something like this: “In the manufacturing industry, 25% of employees are more than 55 years old and the median age of the workforce is 44.5 years. If a person is selected at random from this industry, what is the probability that they are under 30 years of age?”

Now, I don’t need a calculator to tell you how bleak that picture looks for the future of advanced manufacturing. I’ve heard first-hand the frustrations of young high school students, worried about their future earning potential; of parents, who are scared to see their child begin a career that might get outsourced before it has barely begun; of employers, representing organisations both large and small.

Companies in both the US and UK face fierce challenges in 2023, when it comes to attracting and retaining diverse talent

Businesses in the US are disheartened by the unsustainable, over-inflated salaries required to retain top talent. In the UK, they are struggling to back-fill a talent pipeline hamstrung by immigration challenges as a result of leaving the EU. And companies in both the US and the UK all face fierce challenges when it comes to creating more diverse workforces.

My advice to industry?

But, as I stand in a weird gap between people close to retiring and people entering the workforce for the first time, I have a unique perspective to offer companies looking to attract and retain talent. My advice comes in three parts.

First, “If you can see it, you can’t be it.” Statistically, only 180 young players out of a pool of 1.5 million have the chance to become a pro footballer in the UK. Yet many take those odds, because they see the sport everywhere. If you want to attract and retain a workforce of skilled employees, create programmes that are widely seen. Penetrate spaces popular with young people and market career opportunities on social media: Snapchat, TikTok, or Instagram. Meet them where they are most comfortable and most receptive to your message.

Second, “Make it bite-sized.” This upcoming generation is one accustomed to instant gratification, because its members were born and raised on the internet. They’re not interested in extensive 401k benefits, life insurance, retirement programmes/assistanceship, or stocks with long vesting periods. Instead, offer them achievable and clearly outlined goals to achieve regular promotion faster. Offer them healthcare benefits for their pets (because having children in this economy? Absolutely not.) For those that do have children, offer a generous family leave policy – for both partners. Give them lots of options, but make them bite-sized. This generation loves to pick and choose, creating a benefits package tailored to their wants and needs.

Third, “Be fuckin’ for real.” That’s Gen Z slang for “be authentic and cut the bullshit.” This starts with company culture. The younger generation wants to work for a company where personal values align with company values and overall mission. Rewrite your company story, find a purpose. In 2023, you need to “eat, pray, love” your company culture. It’s not enough to simply slap three keywords on an inspirational landscape and hang it on a wall in the break room. No, you have to change your company culture to be more open and responsive to the social issues that this generation cares about, like climate change, mental health and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).

My mother’s favourite algebraic equation is y = mx + b, used to describe the slope of a line. Those four characters tell a story about who crossed what and where, how fast or how slowly, upwards or downwards. At some point, we have to draw the line for ourselves. I remain optimistic that change always brings a positive slope.


About the author:

SJ is a metal additive engineer aka THEE Hottie of Metal Printing. SJ’s work involves providing additive manufacturing solutions and #3dprinting of metal parts to help create a decarbonised world.


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