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Q & A: How Generation Z is Shaping the Workforce

With technology and automation at manufacturing’s fingertips, training the next generation of workers is a complex matter.

Over the past decade, there’s no doubt that automation and technology have significantly changed roles in manufacturing. 

Luckily, the youngest segment to the American workforce, Generation Z, grew up immersed in technology since birth, unlike their Millennial counterparts who had to learn as new devices and the Internet revolutionized the way the world operates.

With baby boomers retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day, according to American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the need to attract newer, younger workers and effectively train them is crucial to the global economy.

“The silver tsunami that is occurring where we have a significant amount of the current workforce retiring is increasing that void,” says Keith Barr, CEO of Leading2Lean, a manufacturing operations management platform. “It’s already starting to occur, but it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. So, we know we need to have a way of attracting the next generation workforce.”
In an interview with EHS Today, Barr provides insight into the mindset of upcoming Generation Z’s perceptions of the manufacturing industry and how to nurture new talent.

What can be said about using software to train and develop Generation Z?

Keith Barr: I think there’s two things. One is the complexity of the manufacturing environment is as challenging as anything you’ll find in technology. I think that’s an interesting challenge for the workforce. The workforce that we’re trying to recruit here is armed very differently and has a very different level of competence or capability as it relates to using technology in their lives—through social media and the way they communicate. I think what motivates a Gen Z employee is having access to all of that information because they’re used to that.

They want to have the ability to collaborate with coworkers on an unprecedented scale, and they also want to solve big problems and we have to change the work environment on the shop floor to really empower them to do just that because that’s also exactly what manufacturing needs to innovate and to solve problems to drive improvement. 

What can be said about the recruiting process to get new talent into the workforce?

Barr: I think that’s a tough one. Baby boomers—and I’m a baby boomer—benefited from things as a result of the economic challenges that our mothers and fathers had to face coming out of the Depression and coming out of wars. That influenced the way we were raised and what motivated us. That changed a lot because that empowerment that we felt and in our ability to live —the American dream about owning your own home and having a successful career and being able to leverage our capital system – those things that motivated us probably helped set the stage for the Millennials a little bit.
I have both Millennials and Gen Z as children. I can tell you they’re very different because the technology that started to come was probably a little bit late for Millennials, but it has very much enabled and empowered Gen Z on a huge scale because now we have smartphones with applications and the ability to collaborate and communicate in a lot of different ways. It’s just the way of life. I’ll be talking to my son and he might be texting with one hand and talking to me in a conversation because that’s just how adept they are.

What can leaders do to foster a transparent and open learning environment?

Barr: You have to open up the information. Manufacturers are driven very much by data. It’s just the data is a little bit too siloed and, in some cases, very closed and very limited access. I think you have to change that. 

Everything has got to be visible and everything’s got to be transparent and we’ve got to give the workforce access to the information that’s going to help them in the task, to empower them in a task. It’s much different than enterprise software today. Enterprise software historically has been a way of managing or defining a process to provide information for decision support for leadership. That has to flip. We have to empower the decision-making capability and the person down at the work level and in the task by arming them with all that information and the trends and the kinds of things that correlate to the task that they’re working; so, they’re empowered to solve problems and drive to innovation. 

It’s just now I think the workforce demands or expects that, and that’s something I think leadership definitely can do by changing the focus on their enterprise systems to focus on the employee and what that employee needs in that task as opposed to what they need as a decision support system.

How else can employers best take advantage of Gen Z’s unique skills?

Barr: People don’t understand what gamification really is. It’s not about playing games; it’s about inspiring people to engage and providing some method of personal reward. I think information systems, or the software that we use in any business, not just manufacturing, but any business is going to have to change to where those are part and parcel in the way that the application works. 
It has to have personal value to that individual in order for them to feel like it’s worth being there. It’s a large part of the way they communicate and how they influence others as well. I think it’s very connected. If we don’t change that, I think not just manufacturing, but all segments of the industry that have employees are going to suffer because they have to facilitate those things. That is the way people think and act and move these days. So, it’s an exciting time for sure. 

And those things are becoming known enough to where people realize the value that they can contribute to their own businesses if they employ them.

Where do you see manufacturing going in the next five years with the skills gap and the rate of boomers retiring in relation to innovation?

Barr: Well, I think it’s a challenge, right? I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know that we’ll be able to cover all the jobs that we need, but it’ll be a definite challenge over the next five years. Automation is filling part of the role for some of the jobs that are the retiring workforce. The reality is the jobs that a lot of the workforce are doing today, the next generation workforce won’t do. They will be replaced by automation and an empowered worker that has more access to information and the ability to control equipment and things like that more electronically.

Those investments are being made now, and we’ll see a very different work environment on the shop floor. It’ll continue to evolve as the retiring workforce exits, and systems are put in place to replace that. But it’s going to be a real challenge to see how we cover it since we all depend on everything manufactured. Everything we touch, consume or use in any way is manufactured. 

We have to have the processes and people there, and we have to have the innovation and problem-solving in manufacturing if we’re going to remain competitive globally as a country as well.  

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