Women Talk Construction: Episode 24-Erasing Stigmas with Tina Zwolinski

In this episode, Angela and Christi talk with Tina Zwolinski from Skillsgapp. Tina helped create a gaming app for youth that teaches various trade skills with the opportunity to see information about local companies that are hiring for those trade skills. Since so many young people are playing games on their mobile phones these days (90%), doesn’t it makes sense to target our youth with an app that can actually help them plan for their careers? This is a great way to erase the stigmas that surround the trade skills in our nation. Listen to find out how!

The Stigma of “Skilled” Careers and the 2022 Reset

The former president of Beltone Hearing Aids used to say that kids aren’t born with the idea that wearing hearing aids is embarrassing or a sign of weakness; they’re taught it by society—us. This stigma keeps millions from utilizing state-of-the-art technology that would help connect them to the very society whose (mis)perceptions disconnect them.

Such is the power of stigma, and it’s the major offender in another societal injustice poised to cost us $1 trillion by 2030: the advanced manufacturing skills gap.

Students aren’t hearing the truth

When misguided assumptions are allowed to persist and worsen, people suffer as a result, because a certain audience never hears what they need to hear. In the case of skilled careers, decades-long stigmas against the manufacturing industry and “nontraditional” schooling practically ensure that students are gated from meaningful careers.

A survey we recently conducted amongst high school students illustrates what outdated perceptions still dominate young opinions of the industry: when asked what words they associate with manufacturing, they responded with phrases like “machines,” “dirty,” “blue-collar,” “hard work,” and “factories.” While these connotations might have held true in the early 1900s, the high-tech manufacturing industry has since progressed far past such a picture. As we explain in this article, the modern reality is that—“contrary to the … ‘dirty hands’ stigma”—technology drives the scene and employee livelihood comes first in today’s manufacturing. 

Thanks in part to false industry beliefs, “6 out of 10 positions in manufacturing remain unfilled.” And these are financially attractive positions. The average wage is around $30 an hour, with a manager’s average annual salary stacking up to be $118,500. (Can you guess what 50% of surveyed Americans assumed it to be? $60,000—almost $60,000 short of the actual salary.)  

It’s hard to fill a position that the workforce pipeline doesn’t know exists. This is because the stigma of “skilled” careers has consequently enforced a four-year college degree as the norm, and it’s limited the career choices suggested by high school guidance counselors. One student explains how they’re only presented with “a narrow range of career opportunities” in school, so “many students don’t know about other options.” Reinforcing this sentiment with statistics, the Leading2Lean Manufacturing Index shares that a staggering 75% of Americans surveyed in 2019 said they “never had a counselor, teacher, and mentor suggest … trade or vocational school as a means to a viable career.” The bottom line is this: students are being kept from successful, fulfilling careers because of outdated images, ignorant bias, and a lack of support. 

The degree reset

There’s some good news, though. Gen Z is “more likely to consider working in manufacturing than prior generations.” Slowly, perceptions are changing. Even employers are reconsidering the value and necessity of a traditional degree. It’s evidence of the “Emerging Degree Reset,” a trend named by Professor Joseph Fuller of Harvard Business School in his recent study of the same title:

Employers are resetting degree requirements in a wide range of roles, dropping the requirement for a bachelor’s degree in many middle-skill and even some higher-skill roles. … Based on these trends, we project that an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years.

Professor Joseph Fuller of Harvard Business School

This shift in focus has the potential to better individuals and businesses alike, as a bachelor’s degree is not the best path for everyone—nor does it guarantee certain skills. Most students in the US would still tell you that a four-year degree is critical to their success even if they’ll be thousands of dollars in debt by the end of their schooling, but it’s just not true, and more and more Americans are realizing this. 

Tesla, the world’s 6th most valuable company, finds it critical to evaluate future employees according to their experience, ability, and potential, not allowing a “degree from a prestigious university” do all the talking. Business Insider shares the hiring process of Tesla and what CEO Elon Musk values, saying, “Musk said he looked for ‘evidence of exceptional ability’ in an employee. ‘If there’s a track record of exceptional achievement, then it’s likely that that will continue into the future.’” When asked, “Do you still stand firmly on not requiring college degrees?” Musk answered with an emphatic “yes.”

A precedent from the president

The nation’s largest employer—the federal government—has also made a stand to help erase persistent stigmas: the Executive Order on Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates from June 26th 2020 supports the sentiment of “skills first” for the hiring of government positions in which a degree is not legally mandated. This order has directed the federal government to “replace outdated degree-based hiring with skills-based hiring,” as noted in the administration achievements archive here.  

“Degree-based hiring is especially likely to exclude qualified candidates for jobs related to emerging technologies and those with weak connections between educational attainment and the skills or competencies required to perform them.  Moreover, unnecessary obstacles to opportunity disproportionately burden low-income Americans and decrease economic mobility.”

Executive Order on Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment
and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates

Policies and practices like this order will narrow (and have already narrowed) the skills gap in industries like advanced manufacturing. 

It’s an important precedent for the government to set. The U.S. Department of Labor website promises that the federal government will “model effective employment policies and practices that advance America’s ideal of equal opportunity for all,” so if they are recruiting with a skills-first mindset alongside other leaders—like Tesla, Accenture, and IBM—more and more companies are sure to follow suit upon seeing the rise in qualified candidates. Essentially, when an employer is forced to consider what skills are truly necessary for a certain position rather than relying on a blanket degree requirement, their specified posting is sure to attract candidates who excel in the requested skillset, because—let’s face it—a college degree is not inherent proof of qualification.

Chauncy Lennon, the vice president for the future of learning and work at the Lumina Foundation, gives his thoughts in an EdSurge article examining industry reactions to the executive order. “Look,” he says, “a BA is a good thing to get, but we shouldn’t design a labor market that says it’s BA or bust. The labor market should allow different pathways. … What’s good about this kind of executive order, it’s helping to get rid of that distortion.” 

Parents, teachers, industry leaders, the days of being tone deaf to the increasingly quantifiable pros of pursuing a skilled-based career isn’t sustainable for a lot of reasons. 1 trillion of them.

Are your company’s hiring practices shifting from degrees to skills? We’re all ears.

How the Pandemic Shifted Gen Z’s Perception of Manufacturing Careers

According to a recent survey, there was a quantifiable uptick in Gen Z’s perception of manufacturing, revealing that of the 1,000 surveyed, 56% said their views on manufacturing changed because of the pandemic, with 77% reporting they view manufacturing as more important. The survey also showed that 54% of respondents said they had not considered a job in frontline manufacturing prior to the pandemic, but 24% are now open to the idea. 

However.

The majority (52%) still remain disinterested or neutral in frontline manufacturing work; of those, 30% are concerned it might be a “low-skilled, manual job.”

Smarter technology in manufacturing

We currently live in an age where technology in the manufacturing world is changing at rates that it never has before. Matt Kirchner, president of LAB midwest, a leading distributor of curriculum, eLearning, and hands-on training equipment for advanced manufacturing, recently shared the biggest automation need for Ashley Furniture, the largest furniture manufacturer of the world’s. The top tier competencies when hiring new team member, according to him – whether from a technical college or from a university – is understanding not just the component technologies, but how to integrate a robot with a conveyor with smart sensors and smart devices; how to integrate a robot-loaded machining center into a manufacturing operation; how to connect these systems to work together in concert; and then communicate with a computer network so that they can use that data in real time. 

As we face the mass exodus of the silver tsunami in manufacturing, whose job descriptions bore nary a robot-loaded, smart anything, it’s fair to say that the future of our couches, cars, and cancer treatments now lie in the next generation’s hands.

Talent recruitment is still a challenge

Here’s the good news: Gen Z loves technology, robots, and smart devices. They also love companies with purpose. Even better news? Advanced manufacturing categorically checks all of these boxes.

So why the aforementioned ‘meh’ from 52% of your future talent pipeline?

1. Lack of understanding. Unfortunately, the industry hasn’t fully explained the dynamic, technology-driven environment of the modern plant floor, according to President and CEO of L2L, Keith Barr.

2. Lack of support. According to a survey, 75% of Americans have never had a counselor, teacher or mentor suggest they look into attending trade or vocational school as a means to a viable career.

3. Lack of exposure. Current industry recruitment efforts are difficult to scale. The National Association of Manufacturers recently took their recruitment show on the road as part of their Creators Wanted initiative, during which kids were invited to experience firsthand the innovation and opportunity behind some of manufacturing’s biggest players, but only about 20 kids at a time, one city at a time.

A new way to attract Gen Z

If you’re selling them a future in technology (you are), you need to use technology. According to techjury, American teens spend an average of 9 hours a day in front of screens, and more than 7 of those are spent on mobile phones. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for the manufacturing industry to consider leveraging this medium to scale its outreach efforts in order to capitalize on Gen Z’s unique skills and interests – no matter where they are. By transforming career awareness, training pathways, and job opportunities into engaging mobile technology, states, industry, and education can revolutionize how the next generation engages in – and views – skills-based careers at an earlier age.

What is your biggest challenge in filling your talent pipeline?

Breaking Gen Z’s Misconceptions About Today’s Manufacturing … and Why it Matters.

Americans’ traditional road to the middle class cannot be traveled easily in today’s world. Gen Z is learning this all too well as they’ve seen the world around them change drastically throughout their formative years. First, they grew up watching millennials take the more conventional route of obtaining a four-year degree, only to accumulate student loan debt and struggle to pay it off with low-paying jobs. And now with COVID-19, those same kids are watching their parents get laid off or furloughed from their white collar, “stable” jobs. 

Breaking the stigma around manufacturing careers isn’t only the key to their future…but ours as well.

The Misconceptions of Manufacturing Careers 

Since the end of WWII, it’s been ingrained in us that if you bypass college, a career path leading to financial stability is a pipe dream. This makes middle-skills jobs, typically requiring a two-year curriculum post secondary education, less sought after than jobs requiring a four-year degree. But here’s the rub: Middle skill careers are paying the same, or even higher wages than those other jobs do, even when starting out. Mitch DeJong, chief technology officer of Brooklyn Park manufacturer Design Ready Controls, credits this misconception to the “dirty hands stigma.”

The stigma is reminiscent of an industrial wasteland. Early 20th century manufacturing facilities still conjure up images of dirty and dangerous places where an entire skills-centric workforce is relegated to a back-breaking career in dismal conditions, simply because they didn’t go to college. But today’s advanced manufacturing facilities have revamped and revitalized their operations, not only to upgrade their AI and robotics, but to maximize the safety and wellbeing of their workforce, whom they desperately need to retain and promote in order to remain competitive in the 21st century.

Skills Gap, Meet Gen Z 

Simply defined, the skills gap is a global talent shortage of skills-based workers that could reach 85.2 million people by 2030. According to the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, “Among U.S. teens, 52% expressed little or no interest in a manufacturing career. When asked why, the respondents said, “Manufacturing was a declining field, with unprofessional, dead-end jobs, dirty factories and frequent layoffs.” Industry Week also highlights the fact that parents aren’t as likely to talk to their kids about the industry because they believe manufacturing is outdated, low-paying or unchallenging. Not only that, but only 3 in 10 parents would consider guiding their child toward a career in the field according to the National Association of Manufacturers and the Manufacturing Institute. 

This means that the skills gap isn’t driven by a shortage of people, but rather a shortage of people with skills. And this crevasse is only deepening because 10,000 baby boomers a day are reaching retirement age for the next 14 years. The $1.748 trillion-in-potential-lost-revenue challenge here is for industry, government and educators to get parents and Gen Z excited about the surplus of middle-skills manufacturing positions about to become available that are as respectable as they are financially rewarding. According to a Salary Survey report from Industry Week, the average salary for a manufacturing manager in 2018 was $118,500.

Modern Manufacturing Today

It’s images like this one of Ford’s Truck Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, that perpetuate the “dirty hands stigma”,  yet it hasn’t looked like this in years.

old and new factory photos

Ford, like most other advanced manufacturers, has transformed its facilities into environmentally-conscious workplaces with ultra-modern features, including a  “living roof” as a safeguard to preserving air and water quality. This is an example of a big win for attracting Generation Z. According to Gen Z expert Corey Seemiller, “Many of them want to work in an organization that is committed to environmental advocacy, as evidenced in their spending, products and organizational practices.”

Youth Apprenticeships: A Win-Win

According to SHRM, the combination of a tight labor market and the high cost of a college education is fueling the interest in youth apprenticeships. This is great news for all, as apprenticeships are a win-win, offering students the chance to find stable middle-skills jobs that they like and can grow into, while their employers create a happy workforce they can groom from an early age.

In general, here’s how it works. According to Kelly Steinhilper, vice president, Communications SC Technical College System, “High school juniors and seniors combine high school curriculum and career and technology training with critical on-the-job training performed at a local business. The students can pull in a paycheck through part-time work while earning a national credential in one of many high-demand occupations. They gain critical workforce experience while earning their high school diploma and some college credit. At the same time, South Carolina’s business and industry that need highly skilled workers can build a solid workforce pipeline for the future.”

McLeod Information Systems, LLC, (MIS) provides a perfect example. Debbie McLeod, president and co-founder of MIS, reported that she found the youth apprenticeship program to be rewarding on many levels. “For one, it allows us as a company to prepare and grow our future industry leaders. Everyone in the company sees the value of the program. For the company employees that work directly with the apprentices, it is the brighter part of the workday when they get to instruct these impressionable minds.”

Is Gen Z Worth Your Attention?

The short answer is yes. The skills gap will cost companies trillions of dollars in lost economic opportunity if the talent shortage continues. This has created an unprecedented demand for middle-skills jobs that is guaranteed to remain strong for years. Between 2014–2024, 48% of job openings will require middle skills.

Simply put, manufacturers need to invest in reaching Gen Z today in order to thrive tomorrow. Stigmas take time to break, so why not spend it getting to know each other a little better.