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Generation Z to the Rescue as Manufacturing Faces a ‘Silver Tsunami’

Survey reveals Generation Z’s interest in manufacturing, but the industry needs to fight for their attention and participation

Published: Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 12:03

It’s no news that U.S. manufacturing has a workforce problem. However, a new survey conducted by Leading2Lean (L2L) offers some unexpected hope. The survey reveals that a new generation of workers could spur industrywide innovation.

The 2019 L2L Manufacturing Index, an annual measurement of the American public’s perceptions of U.S. manufacturing, found that adults in Generation Z (those aged 18–22) are 19 percent more likely to have had a counselor, teacher, or mentor suggest they look into manufacturing as a viable career option when compared to the general population. One-third (32 percent) of Generation Z has had manufacturing suggested to them as a career option, as compared to only 18 percent of Millennials and 13 percent of the general population.

Better still, the survey also found that people in Generation Z are intrigued by careers in manufacturing. They are 7 percent more likely to consider working in the manufacturing industry and 12 percent less likely to view the manufacturing industry as being in decline, both compared against the general population. These findings may be in relation to Generation Z having a larger exposure to the industry compared to previous generations. One-third (32 percent) of this group has family members or friends working in the manufacturing industry, compared to 19 percent for Millennials and 15 percent for the general population.

“For many years, manufacturing has struggled to introduce and entice new workers to the industry,” says Keith Barr, president and CEO of L2L, the lean manufacturing software company behind the survey. “The industry has failed to compete with technology for their interest. Unfortunately, the industry hasn’t fully explained the dynamic, technology-driven environment of the modern plant floor. With Gen Z just moving into the workforce, we need to encourage their participation in modern manufacturing. If we don’t, I’m afraid the industry will be hit with the negative effects of the Silver Tsunami.”

U.S. Manufacturing peaked during the 1970s when Baby Boomers started entering the workforce. Now, Boomers are retiring, and with them goes vast institutional knowledge and experience. According to the latest government data, there are now 522,000 open manufacturing jobs in the United States (an all-time high),1 and a recent report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute (the National Association of Manufacturer’s social-impact arm) projects that 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled during the next decade.2

Unfortunately, vast misconceptions about the industry persist. For example, the 2019 L2L Manufacturing Index revealed that more than half (53 percent) of the general population assumes the average salary of a midlevel manufacturing manager is under $60,000. In reality, the average salary for a manufacturing manager in 2018 was $118,500, according to IndustryWeek.3

Although Generation Z appears to have had greater overall exposure to manufacturing, misperceptions about the highly technical and modern nature of the industry still remain. A majority (56 percent) of Generation Z would consider working in the tech industry, while only 27 percent would consider working in the manufacturing industry. Additionally, they are more likely to consider manufacturing jobs boring when compared to Millennials and the general population.

Leading2Lean, though, has reason to believe that the industry is making positive moves toward a better informed public. Last year’s 2018 Leading2Lean Manufacturing Index measured that 70 percent of people believed that the U.S. manufacturing industry was in decline. When the same question was asked in this year’s survey, only 54 percent of people believed the industry is in decline, showcasing a surprisingly better understanding of the present state of the industry.

“With Gen Z we have an opportunity as an industry to build a new workforce, but it will be a challenge that industry is going to have to take seriously to get their attention and participation,” says Barr. “We know that the workforce crisis is a top concern with a majority of manufacturers.4 Instead of hoping new workers will appear, industry must make changes that will attract the workforce. Gen Z is incredibly tech savvy. The industry needs to consider developing and deploying plant-floor technology that utilizes gamification and transparency to take advantage of Gen Z’s unique skills. The greatest opportunity for manufacturing is to have an engaged, empowered workforce that is constantly innovating.”

Education is the key, and it is an area in which manufacturing continues to struggle. In terms of alternative types of education, the 2019 L2L Manufacturing Index found that a vast 75 percent of people have never had a counselor, teacher, or mentor suggest they look into attending trade or vocational school as a viable career option. The number was slightly lower with Generation Z (59 percent) and Millennials (67 percent), but still showcases an extreme disconnect about considering alternatives outside of traditional four-year institutions.

When surveyed about the likeability and availability of work, 54 percent of Generation Z respondents agreed that there is a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers in the United States, and 43 percent agreed that manufacturing jobs are an attractive option to younger workers and the next generation of workers. A majority (59 percent) of Generation Z also agreed that trade schools offer promising career opportunities for high school students graduating in 2019.

Generation Z grew up in the midst of the Great Recession, watched their older peers accumulate student debt, then struggle to pay it off with low-paying jobs right out of college. They are seeking higher-paid jobs in more transparent and open learning environments, and they’re increasingly open to alternative types of education and training.5 Barr believes manufacturing jobs can meet their needs and provide the diverse and rewarding work experience they crave.

To learn more about the 2019 L2L Manufacturing Index, view more survey results, and download data visualizations, please visit Leading2Lean’s website.

Survey methodology

The 2019 L2L Manufacturing Index findings are sourced from two online omnibus surveys conducted by Engine in May of 2019 and initiated by Leading2Lean (L2L). The first survey was conducted May 6–8, 2019, and distributed to a sample of 1,003 adults demographically representative of the United States at a 95-percent confidence level. The second survey was conducted May 9–13, 2019, and distributed to a sample of 225 respondents aged 18–22 at a 95-percent confidence level. A total of 303 respondents were aged 18–22 from the two surveys, providing a 6-percent margin of error for the total Generation Z (18–22) audience. Leading2Lean has defined “Generation Z” as those born between 1997 and 2012, as defined by Pew Research Center.6

1. NAM Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey—Q4 2018
2. Deloitte: 2018 Skills Gap in Manufacturing Study
3. 2018 IndustryWeek Salary Survey
4. National Association of Manufacturers’ 2018 Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey
5. Deloitte Insights—Gen Z Enters the Workforce
6. Pew Research Center—Defining Generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins


About The Author

Leading2Lean’s picture


Founded in 2010, Northern Nevada-based Leading2Lean is focused on operational-excellence solutions for multinational manufacturers. Leading2Lean is run by an executive team with extensive experience in manufacturing, engineering, and turning around failed enterprises. Its cloud-based systems provide critical real-time information to help rank-and-file workers do their jobs better and take ownership of their work.