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Dark, dirty, and dangerous. While the manufacturing industry has evolved dramatically over the last few decades, many Americans might still use these terms to describe a factory today. In fact, skilled trades industries across the board still suffer from the perception gap that the occupations in their fields involve dirty and low-level work, without much opportunity for career growth. In the second installment of our apprenticeship series, we will provide an overview of the perception gap in manufacturing in the U.S., why it is such a significant issue, and ways businesses can address the gap.

What is the Perception of Manufacturing in 2017?

While manufacturing remains a vital industry for economic growth in the country, many Americans are disinclined to pursue a career in the space. According to a 2017 Deloitte report, a third of Americans would not encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career for a variety of reasons: 77% are worried about security and stability; 70% feel it is not a strong career path; and 64% believe it does not pay enough.1 Furthermore, only 30% of Americans believe school systems encourage students to pursue manufacturing careers. In comparison to 2014, the perception of manufacturing is improving, with 12% more Americans reporting they believe the industry will continue to grow and over 20% more Americans reporting they believe the industry is high tech.2 However, there is still significant room to grow.

Why Is the Perception Gap a Problem?

The challenge is referred to as a perception "gap" because the vision many have of the manufacturing industry is misaligned with the reality. For example, 83% of Americans believe manufacturing is important to America's economic prosperity and it is ranked among the most important industries in maintaining a strong U.S. economy.3 And while 77% consider a career in manufacturing to be unstable, the industry actually provides one of the most stable and secure careers with the average tenure of workers being among the highest in the private sector at over nine years.

Furthermore, manufacturing jobs do in fact pay well; the average manufacturing worker in the U.S. earns over $81,000 annually in comparison to the $64,000 average earned by workers in other industries.4 As technology has advanced, jobs in the industry require more highly-educated employees, resulting in a higher paid workforce. Demand for these employees in not slowing down, either. The Manufacturing Institute estimates 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed over the next decade.5 However, if the perception gap remains, the next generation of workers will be disinclined to enter the industry, resulting in companies continuing to be challenged to find and recruit new talent.

How to Alter the Perception of Manufacturing?

What can manufacturing companies do to counter the current industry perception and generate the same creativity, excitement, and demand as the start-ups in Silicon Valley? Check out three suggestions below and how some companies are already putting these tactics into action:

  • Engage Youth with Plant Tours

Because of lack of exposure to the industry, many high schoolers and youth have no concept of what a manufacturing facility actually looks like. To change the "dark, dirty, and dangerous" mindset, invite high school students and community youth into your plant for a tour. At Wisconsin-based GenMet Corporation, managers are doing just that. Quoted in SHRM, CEO Eric Isbister noted, "When [students] come in, they see automated equipment and computers. My employees know it's their job to make students aware they can be successful here."6 The organization also hires teachers over the summer, giving them exposure to an occupation they can then educate their students about, and offers state-run high school apprenticeships that rotate students through departments to introduce them to different careers.

  • Offer Exceptional Career Development Opportunities

To alter the perception that the industry lacks career pathways, manufacturing companies must realize that what they offer is more than just a job. With congress continuing to pour funding into the apprenticeship system, developing career development and apprenticeship programs at your company that appeal to a new generation of workers can serve as a win-win for the employee and the business. For example, utilizing an online training provider for related instruction or offering schedule flexibility can appeal to millennials with nontraditional expectations of their workplace.

According to a 2012 Mathematica analysis, workers who complete apprenticeships about $6,500 more per year than their peers who did not receive comparable training after high school.7 Additionally, studies also showed that apprentices retain longer, better integrate into company culture, and show greater leadership potential, resulting in a win for the sponsoring company.

  • Host Events to Educate Local Community
Taking your efforts outside of your business walls will broaden your reach and make an impact on the perception of manufacturing in the local community as well. For example, GenMet Corporation also organizes presentations at local high schools and technical schools, bringing in workers to speak to their experience in the high-tech manufacturing space.8 Events centered around National Manufacturing Day, celebrated on the first Friday of October, are specifically planned to address common misconceptions about the industry and amplify the voice of individual manufacturers.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The Apprenticeship Guide, coming next week!

Recommended for You: The Apprenticeship Guide: Why Developing Talent from Within is Great for Your Bottom Line

Resources: (1, 2, 3, 4) Deloitte (5) The Manufacturing Institute (6, 8) SHRM (7) New America