Is Generation Z Ready for Plant-Floor Technology?

Leading2Lean’s Manufacturing Index reveals that Generation Z is interested in manufacturing, but the industry needs to fight for the young generation’s attention and participation.

A survey conducted by Leading2Lean (L2L) reveals there is hope that Generation Z – those born from the mid-90s to the early 2000s – will spur innovation throughout industry. The survey focused on Generation Z’s opinions and assumptions about the manufacturing industry. The findings indicate the manufacturing industry has a real opportunity to tap into this up-and-coming generation of tech-savvy workers just as industry’s aging Boomer generation retires, leaving behind a skills gap.

The survey’s findings include:

  • Generation Z has had more exposure to the industry than prior generations
  • One-third of them have had manufacturing suggested to them as a career option, compared to only 18% of Millennials and 13% of the general population
  • They are more than twice as likely to have family members or friends currently working in the industry compared to the general population
  • Fifty four percent of them understand that there is a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers in the U.S.
Generation Z, plant technology, machine learning, retiring knowledge workers, Boomers, HMI, touchscreens
Generation Z is intrigued by careers in manufacturing. They are 7% more likely to consider working in the manufacturing industry and 12% less likely to view the manufacturing industry as being in decline compared to the general population.  (Image source: Leading2Lean)

Design News caught up with Keith Barr, the  CEO and president of Leading2Lean, to learn more about this promising generation.

Design News: What is it about Generation Z that differentiates them from previous generations? It is familiarity with technology?

Keith Barr: One of the largest differentiators of Gen Z from prior generations is certainly their deep familiarity with technology. They are the first wave of “digital natives.” Tech has been woven into almost every aspect of their lives, from smart phones and touchscreens to the use of digital tools in the classroom. Their affinity for efficient digital solutions to everyday problems is what makes them a perfect fit for the modern digitalized manufacturing plant floor.

However, we have the challenge that they’re not fully aware of the modern, digitalized nature of today’s plant floors. In our survey, we found that they are 10% less likely to agree that manufacturing jobs involve the use of cutting-edge technology. This is why manufacturers need to get serious about recruiting this new generation by integrating things that appeal to them into plant systems, such as simulation and gamification training modules, and transparent digital interfaces.

DN: How are those from Generation Z an improvement over Gen X or Boomers? Is it tech savviness?

Keith Barr: Gen Z’s tech ability is the most obvious advantage that they have over Boomers, Gen X, and even Millennials. But according to multiple studies they’re also more independent, entrepreneurial, and collaborative than their older counterparts. They are used to information that’s just a search away, so they are more self-directed when it comes to training and problem solving.  For example, if you provide the right information to a Gen Z worker, they will often take ownership of how to use that information to improve their work.

Gen Zers also have a distinct desire to collaborate and an affinity to solve big problems. Equipping them with plant floor systems that provide real-time data caters to this need and encourages meaningful collaboration, ultimately leading to better problem solving. Current plant floor systems need to accommodate these human desires and elements, leveraging their innovative and problem-solving abilities. These are great qualities to have on the plant floor, and this is the focus of what L2L does, engage the worker.

DN: How might Gen Z workers be a drawback?

Keith Barr: Since Gen Z is so accustomed to connecting digitally, sources like Deloitte have reported that they will need more training on “soft skills” like workplace communication techniques than previous generations. The majority prefer to connect face-to-face and respond well to a collaborative approach, so setting up an apprenticeship system of onboarding and training with older and more experienced workers is one great solution. It’s also an excellent way of ensuring that vital on-the-job knowledge isn’t lost when Boomers retire.

DN: Have plants changed in ways that Gen Z may not realize? Such as the fact that manufacturing isn’t as loud and dirty as it used to be?

Keith Barr: Absolutely. Like every other industry, technology is transforming the plant floor. The modern plant floor is a dynamic, high tech environment. Computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence work together to create an efficient, swift-moving plant floor.  The change on the plant floor calls for different skills from plant-floor workers. The workforce must be more adaptable, quicker to spot problems, and swifter to solve those problems. The enemy of the plant floor is down time. Logistics and just-in-time delivery of parts and materials means for every minute a plant floor is stopped, there is a cascading effect of stalled inventory, delayed delivery, and lost efficiency. All automated machines break down and the more complicated a machine is, the more likely it is to experience failure.

When machines break down, they must be fixed by humans. So, communication between man and machine must be swift and sure. Gen Z’ers are not aware of this exciting, dynamic workplace because the industry has not done a good job of explaining the evolution of the plant floor to new generations. That’s understandable because the change has been rapid. In the future, the industry must attract Gen Z to the plant floor. They can do this by better and more frequently explaining the nature of modern plan-floor work, and by adding elements of gamification to the interfaces between man and machine.

DN: What are companies and city/state/fed governments doing to attract and educate Gen Z’ers to the benefits of manufacturing?

Keith Barr: The National Association of Manufacturers has some very promising programs in place directed towards bringing young people into manufacturing and helping them learn more about the industry. The US Department of Labor has also recently announced a $100 million grant for apprenticeship programs aimed at closing the skills gap, as well as grants for each state and funding specifically for women entering non-traditional fields like manufacturing. Many individual communities across the country are likewise doing a great job with outreach on a local level, with some conducting plant tours and providing information about manufacturing careers to schools.

These are important steps in the right direction, but as our survey results show, the industry still has quite a ways to go in terms of the scale of outreach to Gen Z. If we hope to address the huge impending skills gap, we as an industry must work together to make sure that young people know that the modern manufacturing plant is a cutting-edge, dynamic place to work.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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