Manufacturing: Attracting the digital native generation

The manufacturing sector is not usually front of mind when young adults – today’s ‘digital natives’ – consider possible career choices. But with the advent of digital manufacturing, the sector is facing a serious skills shortage, and executives need to take concerted steps if manufacturing is to retain its rightful place in a healthy economy.

Worldwide, the manufacturing sector has over the past few years witnessed a dramatic shift from traditional manufacturing practices (which were labour intensive and required low technology) to models embracing the latest technological – especially digital – advances.

In South Africa and in Africa as a whole, the move to digital has been slower, but the momentum is now picking up, driven by multinational companies who are standardising the migration from analogue and semi-digitised equipment to fully functional digital manufacturing equipment. South Africa’s economic gateway status on the continent is also fuelling the race for the digitisation of manufacturing.

These new technology models require skills sets which are in short supply at all levels in the manufacturing sector. Unfortunately, manufacturing is not seen as a particularly innovative industry, and young people have for the most part not made the connection between new technology and manufacturing. It is still seen as a ‘traditional’ industry, and graduates seem to be drawn into it only if there are no choices available in other, ‘sexier’ sectors such as telecommunications.

The manufacturing sector has not done nearly enough to merchandise itself as a desirable industry in which digital natives can forge long-term careers. It has been far too inward looking, lamenting its state of slow decline instead of seizing opportunities and showcasing advanced manufacturing technology to appeal to the new generation.

Trends analyst Dion Chang of Flux Trends presented his 2016 findings on how hiring trends have changed. The findings corroborate that young people of today operate differently, working in different time zones, are less likely to stay at a single company for many years, are adventurous and that they are more likely to take risks. Leaders must understand how these digital natives think, how they operate, and how they can be coached into the manufacturing sector and help in providing some much-needed solutions.

How can the image of the manufacturing industry as a ‘staid, conformist and unexciting’ sector be turned around to attract and retain the skills it urgently needs? Industry leaders need to:

  • Understand today’s digital natives. Manufacturers and leaders need to have a clear understanding of how the millennial generation thinks and operates, as well as of the value they can bring to an organisation. There also needs to be a strategy to integrate digital natives into the company – sustainable intergenerational teams can be created by pairing digital natives with the current workforce, enabling a diversity of skills at all levels.
  • Embrace technology. Strategic conversations need to take place at the highest level, and the top leadership needs to fearlessly embrace the digital era. If senior leaders are not technologically savvy, they should surround themselves with expert teams that can assist them in leading their companies forward. Today’s digital natives need to feel secure that the organisation is committed to an overarching digital strategy as the crucial driver for its future growth.
  • Facilitate collaboration. Leaders should enter into agreements with educational institutions to ensure the relevant skills are produced to meet manufacturing sector needs, through sponsorship of courses, for example. Collaboration should also take place with the government to facilitate greater alignment with policymakers.

Finally, the manufacturing industry can certainly learn some lessons from the fixed line telecommunications sector. People forget that the telecoms used to be a preserve of government ministries, but with the advent of mobile telecoms, everything changed as the industry communicated the benefits of wireless technology. Suddenly the possibilities were endless and everyone wanted to be associated with the sector. In the same way, the manufacturing sector needs to showcase its role as a purveyor of cutting-edge, advanced technology. The opportunities are there – industry leaders now need to embrace them and actively portray the sector as a source of innovation to attract the type of skills it needs.