Manufacturing – Attracting Youth to Industry

If you’re reading this, you already know: manufacturing jobs are good jobs. By that I mean, they are opportunities for rewarding work, personally and financially.

But we have a problem. Not everyone shares this knowledge. Young people in particular – our future workforce – don’t tend to hold a very high opinion of manufacturing. For example, national research conducted over the past 25 years by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum indicates that about 20% of students continue to believe that careers in skilled trades are “worse than” other professions. If these are their opinions on skilled professions, one can imagine their approval for for so-called “low skill” occupations is even lower.

At the May 23 Manufacturing Summit hosted by our Greater KW Chamber of Commerce, many challenges and ideas around recruitment were shared about how to recruit and retain employees. There was some discussion about engaging young people: Waterloo Region’s Business & Education Partnership was discussed by one of the panelists (hey, thanks Allison Mitchell!)

But when it comes to changing opinions – which haven’t moved much in 25 years – what are we missing? How can we meaningfully address the problem that 1 in 5 students won’t even consider a skilled trade, let alone other occupations within manufacturing?

Most responses are that we need to educate students, as well as teachers and parents about what the benefits of manufacturing careers. This is very true. There are many worthwhile initiatives that aim to do this, including programs organized through Waterloo Region’s Business & Education Partnership. Initiatives like Manufacturing Day, which allow students to tour local manufacturing facilities, are other excellent examples.

However, I would argue that our approaches can sometimes miss a critical understanding: it’s not only that we need to change students’ perceptions of manufacturing. It’s that we need to change their perceptions of themselves.

Allow me to explain.

We understand that many students don’t know what they want to do for a career by the time they leave high school, but that doesn’t mean they have an open mind. Although it varies for each individual, some time around the transition to high school, students have significantly narrowed down the kinds of work that seem acceptable to their emerging sense of identity. I’m not a developmental psychologist, but this process starts at a young age, and is subject to ongoing socio-cultural influences of all kinds, particularly parental (and later peer) approval.

In other words, students aren’t only questioning whether manufacturing jobs are “good.” They are also questioning:

“Am I the kind of person who would work in manufacturing?”

“What would people think of me if I worked in manufacturing?”

These considerations motivate career decisions much more than we might expect. Factors such as wages, while obviously important in reality, tend to function in the minds of youth as a marker of prestige and status. To put it another way, the good paying job is a high status one — but students are drawn to it because of the status, not because they understand the need to make early investments in RRSPs!

Understanding this process gives insight into the best way forward. First off, stats and figures won’t take us far in getting youth to consider careers in manufacturing. Instead, we need to rigorously showcase relatable people who have recently made the choice to pursue a career in manufacturing. We need to provide students with opportunities to interact with these people so that they can develop an understanding that these are rewarding options, from someone like them, who is living proof. If that can happen at a manufacturing facility so students can see the reality of the work, that is all the better. Just understand that, for schools, there isn’t an unlimited budget of time or money for field trips. Sometimes more can be accomplished within a school, at least as a place to begin.

Young adults have many things they worry about — career decisions is just one. If we don’t start at students’ understanding of themselves, it does not matter how much information about manufacturing is available, because it will not cut through the noise. If students don’t feel that they are the kind of person who would work in manufacturing, they won’t even pay attention.

So for those of you out there who are proud to work in manufacturing, let’s show students the kind of person you are, and the kind of person they could be. This is what Waterloo Region’s Business & Education Partnership was founded to do. We invite you to join us.   

This blog was written by the Waterloo Region’s Business & Education Partnership. Learn more about them here.