Propose a manufacturing job to a kid at a graduation party, and you’ll get some weird looks. Kids these days. It is not their fault. We have, for far too long, vilified factory jobs and careers, and we are now merely seeing the consequences of this. We have created a glorified view of the knowledge workers but the narrative we’ve crafted has left some careers behind.
Consumerism powers the world. This is not just a nice thing to say. It is the reality. We consume commodities and products in high quantities, the highest ever in human history.
COVID has put a dent in this story, but I won’t be wrong to assume this is a slight blip and not a long-term trend. An estimated 4 billion-plus people who belong to the consumer class spend more than $55 trillion each year.
The economics also show us that we are a wealthy bunch even if we don’t always feel that way. But the numbers show that we have more people classified as “middle class” now, and they are richer than ever before.
It is middle-class household consumption that drives the economy. If we oversimplify this whole equation, we can safely say that there is a considerable demand for goods (and services) and it is now all about supply.
For a voracious global consumer market to thrive, we need manufacturing to thrive too. A lot of countries have identified this new reality and have been investing considerable amounts in attracting and developing manufacturing capabilities too. For the new global economy to work, we need more smart people in manufacturing jobs.
I have heard many parents who have had manufacturing jobs their entire lives say “My baby’s not going to work in a factory; my baby’s going to college.” It is a product of how their own lives and jobs have been and how they have been treated in the past. But for the “baby” here, manufacturing is likely to be a lucrative career option.
Why do we need a change in the narrative?
All this to say: We have been telling the wrong story about blue-collar careers. We have been doing this for too long. It is high time we change the narrative around this. We need better people to come into manufacturing and create a story where there are more individuals choosing manufacturing jobs as their preferred choice. Blue-collar is the new collar and that is what we should be talking about.
We aren’t looking for unskilled labor. We need skilled technicians.
Manufacturing jobs of today compose a challenging and knowledge-heavy profession, unlike the images we conjure of greasy men and women toiling away at machines. A lot of the repetitive tasks have been replaced by automation and robotics.
We have had robots do the heavy lifting since the 1960s in most places. Surprised? Today’s manufacturing worker needs tech skills, understanding of logistics, and at least some basic math to get their job done. The job profile mostly is about managing the machines and doing the critical bits, and we need technicians for it.
Innovation is central.
As costs go up and ambiguities pile up, our reliance on innovative solutions in manufacturing is at an all-time high. We need ideas and solutions that can do more with less. If there is one thing we have learned from Toyota’s kaizen story or many other similar experiences is that the best innovations come from those on the floor.
And the biggest impact may not come from a radical approach in how the assembly line works but in those tiny changes only seen by those who live and breathe the process. We need people who are constantly on the lookout for small ideas, and this comes from having a new generation geared up for the challenge.
Sustainability is a key conversation.
We are living in a world under threat from climate change. Manufacturing has a big role to play in how global consumption impacts the environment. We require sustainable alternatives and radical changes that don’t just look at profits but also at macro-impacts. These sustainable solutions have to come from within and through constant experimentation and small fixes.
We need more people.
Okay, so this one is a bit obvious but there is value in stating the obvious. Just like we need more people in agriculture, there is a similar need for more young talent to take up manufacturing. More than a quality conversation, there is a quantity aspect involved too.
Naturally, higher education would correspond to more knowledge-economy workers. The narrative change needs to happen so that we can get the younger generations excited about what we currently call “blue-collar.” We need trained professionals going into the factory floors.
How can we change the narrative?
It’s not easy, but we have to begin somewhere. Let’s spark more conversations, transparency, and education when it comes to manufacturing jobs.
While we see career days at schools filled with knowledge workers and other service economy professionals, let’s also bring in “new collar” workers. We need to present a better picture of what a manufacturing career looks like and how to prepare for one.
Provide vocational and skills training.
Schools– especially higher education institutions– need a better curriculum, one that reflects the modern world outside the academy. Today’s students deserve a viable professional education beyond just engineering courses that equip the students with skills for a new collar career.
Tell better stories.
One of the most important things is to have better stories told about blue-collar careers and factories. This narrative is not just about movies and shows but also about regular content on the internet. While we glorify the knowledge and service economy, some glory should also go to the manufacturing industry. It also means not saying “My baby’s not going to work in a factory; my baby’s going to college.”
Manufacturing is the lifeline of the global economy. No matter how much progress we achieve in digital and tech, factories producing essential and non-essential consumer products will remain active and strong. The key aspect is bringing in professionals who can fuel the growth and innovation in these industries.
The narrative won’t change in a day. I can see some progress in the way we talk about it, but there is still a long way to go. The effort also has to come from manufacturing organizations to change the perception about blue-collar workers. They need to be treated how the white-collar workers are, and perhaps even more. If we keep talking about blue-collar jobs like how we have been, it is likely that in the future, we will end up with a frayed collar.