Kendra Slis presenting at the Navigators Manufacturing Ambassador's Program held at Commonwealth Charter Academy. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

The days when high school and college graduates joined a company and retired decades later from the same organization with a gold watch have pretty much disappeared. 

The very mobile and tech-savvy members of Generation Y — better known as millennials and born from 1981 to 1996 — and Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, are seeking jobs that provide more personal fulfillment than their parents and grandparents may have sought in their careers. 

How to attract and retain these workers at manufacturing firms is a focus of the Manufacturing Works Summit, a daylong event scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 23, at Commonwealth Charter Academy in Homestead. 

The summit host is Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit economic development organization that helps small- and medium-sized manufacturers grow revenues, improve productivity and retain employees. 

“Workforce challenges have been around since time began,” says Petra Mitchell, president and CEO of Catalyst Connection. 

But the pandemic — a time when millions left jobs because of health concerns, child-care and other issues — has exacerbated the problem of finding and keeping employees, she adds. 

“It’s even more acute. Business opportunities are being turned down on a daily basis because there’s not enough capacity to meet demand.”

Millennial and Gen Z values

Part of the challenge for employers is making their workplaces attractive to younger workers who crave diverse colleagues, flexible work-from-home arrangements, potential to grow in their jobs, and non-financial corporate values that align with their personal principles. 

Think concern for the environment or social responsibility. 

“Manufacturers, in general, need to reframe what they’re about,” says Emily Siegel, a workforce specialist with Catalyst Connection who will speak at the summit about her research into how manufacturing firms can better appeal to younger generations. 

Gen Z workers in particular, she says, “are bold and blunt and much more willing to stick up for what they want” in a job.

Kendra Slis, 27, is an inside sales engineer with MECCO. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

Kendra Slis, 27, is an inside sales engineer with MECCO, a Cranberry firm that makes marking and tracing products including lasers for the automotive, aerospace, electronics and oil and gas industries. 

Slis was an early participant in Catalyst’s Manufacturing Navigators program in which individuals under age 35 interact with middle and high school students to provide guidance about manufacturing careers. 

Navigators emphasize that the sector has “jobs in robotics, or lasers — it’s not just working in a dark mill,” says Slis. Millennials and Gen Z job applicants, she says, want to help people and “want value and purpose to what we’re doing.”

Many manufacturing jobs require employees to show up in the lab or on the factory floor, she acknowledges, but being able to discuss flexible work arrangements with the boss is a plus.

Other perks Slis and her peers look for are opportunities to get in on the ground floor of product development “and to know it’s OK to fail” in the early stages. 

“Putting trust in employees is a big buy-in,” she adds. Before the pandemic, MECCO hosted doughnut meetings and all-company lunches on alternate Fridays and summer picnics and Kennywood outings. 

“That was a nice way for the company to show they appreciate us,” says Slis.

Traditional benefits such as health care coverage and paid time off are also important, she says, but overall, younger workers want to know their employer “has a willingness to try new things, is flexible and open-minded.”

“It’s about making you feel fulfilled and satisfied and wanting to get up and do your job and impact society.”

Recruiting challenges

Doug Dunworth, president and CEO of SMS, an engineering firm with U.S. headquarters on the North Shore that designs and services equipment for steelmakers, says recruiting in manufacturing is a challenge because companies need workers and are competing for the same talent. 

Mechanical engineering jobs for new graduates that may have paid starting salaries of $55,000 to $65,000 a year several years ago are now starting at $60,000 to $70,000 “because of the demand,” he says. 

SMS recruiters have found Gen Z workers “want a career path and want it spelled out,” says Dunworth.
“Recruiting takes a lot more work right now,” he says, because younger generations “haven’t experienced a downturn where they’re not working and fighting for a job.”

To retain younger workers, he says, “Pay attention and interact with them. If the manager doesn’t engage, people will leave.”

Younger workers also need to be “recognized with pay and small bumps in their titles to show they are progressing,” he says.

Summit details 

In addition to a panel of young professionals speaking about their experiences in the manufacturing sector, summit session topics include recruiting veterans and individuals with barriers to employment; and robotics/manufacturing programs for middle and high school students.

Presenters include representatives from the Moonshot Museum, WQED, Digital Foundry, Bayer, New Century Careers, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, Life’s Work of Western Pennsylvania, and JWF Industries. 

The scheduled keynote speaker is Sabrina Saunders Mosby, president and CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh, who will discuss diversity in the workforce. 

The summit will be held in person, a “tough decision,” Mitchell says, because of ongoing pandemic concerns. “People are really hungry for in-person gatherings. It’s very hard to engage people virtually for an entire day.” 

Covid protocols including masks and proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test will be in place. 

Register online for the summit, which costs $100.

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.