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Danny Smith is Principal, Manufacturing Industry Advisory, at Ceridian

Manufacturing has long been a cornerstone of the global economy. In Canada, it represents approximately 10 per cent of total gross domestic product, and 68 per cent of merchandise exports.

Over the past decade or so, the rapid introduction and adoption of a host of new technologies bringing on the fourth Industrial Revolution (referred to as “Industry 4.0”) is changing the nature of what work looks like on the production line. Old stereotypes of dirty factories with “blue-collar” workers mindlessly repeating the same task over and over are shifting to work that requires highly skilled, creative, and technology-savvy problem solvers.

Oddly our sector is facing a critical labour shortage and skills gap that is threatening future growth and the health of the economy. A 2018 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute (MI) found an estimated 2.4 million positions in the United States may be left unfilled by 2028 and puts US$2.5-trillion in manufacturing GDP at risk over the next decade. To mitigate the risk, manufacturers have started to invest heavily to attract younger workers, particularly millennial and Generation Z talent with hard-to-recruit technology skills.

Yet these efforts are seriously hindered. Manufacturing is not deemed a viable career path. Only 49 per cent of millennials said they believed manufacturing offers fulfilling careers according to the 2018 Leading2Lean Survey, likely based on guidance from their parents – the Deloitte/MI study found that only 3 in 10 parents would consider guiding their child towards manufacturing. Only 32 per cent of respondents thought manufacturing was clean and safe, and despite having the longest tenure (9.7 years) only 28 per cent considered manufacturing jobs stable and secure. Clearly, the sector is facing a huge branding problem.

So how can we improve manufacturing’s brand and become a magnet for new talent? While the images of dirty mindless work from the past are no longer valid, tomorrow’s work force expects more engagement and are vocal on social media if not happy. According to the recent Gallup study How Millennials Want to Work and Live, these workers are the least engaged of any generation (only 29 per cent). Acknowledging this dynamic, creating a positive employee experience (EX) has emerged as a top-three priority for leaders, according to a recent report by research firm Gartner Inc.

Ranking highly in EX pays off. Organizations that score in the top 25 per cent on EX report nearly three times the return on assets and double the return on sales compared to organizations in the bottom quartile, according to the 2019 IBM Financial Impact of a Positive Employee Experience Report.

What does it take to design a positive EX? Millennial and Gen Z talent are digital natives and expect their workplace experience to be comparable to their experience as consumers. In response, we need to offer our work force a consumerized experience that is intuitive, instantaneous, personalized and mobile. This is no longer a “nice to have” – it is becoming table stakes, and something competing sectors have embraced for years. And this trend is expected to accelerate.

We manufacturers need to consider ways to stand out and change our image to better attract – and just as importantly retain – the next wave of talent. Positive EX will be a critical component needed to build a culture of fairness, transparency, and empowerment. Some key criteria to consider for designing a modern EX:

  1. Focus on the basics. Measure and track engagement. Capture why employees promote or criticize the company. Acknowledge valid issues and address them.
  2. Leverage technology and emphasize mobile. Install a digital human capital management (HCM) platform for employees. We are heavily investing in digital initiatives – let’s not forget to digitize our worker’s day-to-day experience as well. An intuitive mobile app is a must-have.
  3. Make things intuitive and simple. Examine the employee journey. Is it easy to do everyday tasks like clock-in, or ask for days off? Simplify administrative work for the employee. A key test is: can it be figured out without training?
  4. Allow employees to self-serve. Give workers easy access to training for their current jobs, and the jobs they want. Providing a path toward new technology skills provides a future.

As manufacturers, we are competing with leading companies in every other industry for millennial and Gen Z talent – especially those with hard-to-recruit technology skills. Changing the perception of our sector will be key to winning the hearts and minds of this talent pool, and creating a positive employee experience is critical. Happy and engaged employees are the best advertising – and manufacturing can’t rebrand without them.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

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