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As the population ages, labour is shifting to a younger demographic. Photo: Fotolia

Millennials and Generation Z are changing the Canadian manufacturing labour force

A common challenge for many Canadian manufacturers is finding and retaining skilled labour. Many businesses are facing the retirement of older employees, and higher turnover in their workforce. At the same time some manufacturers lament that younger workers don’t have the same skill sets as the earlier generations, or that they’re just not interested in the manufacturing sector.

But the reality is that as our population ages, the labour force is shifting towards a younger demographic. The oldest millennials are mid-career and looking for future growth opportunities, while younger millennials and Generation Z are entering the work world with a vastly different viewpoint than previous employees. They do have varied aptitudes and interests than other generations of workers, but they also have different demands of employers. If Canadian manufacturers are going to continue to succeed, they must find creative ways to attract these young workers, while embracing some of the changes this generation requires to feel fully engaged in their work.

Millennials (currently aged between 24 and 38) came of age during the early days of the internet, while Generation Z (those aged 23 and under) was born never knowing a world that was not digitally connected. That means they are at home communicating and working in a digital environment designed for continuous improvement. They are quick to adapt to rapidly changing technology and are accustomed to being in constant contact with friends and colleagues.

At the same time millennials and Generation Z have different needs and goals than earlier generations of workers and are motivated by more than just financial security when choosing one job or company over another. According to Deloitte’s seventh annual Millennial Survey, released in May 2018, young workers believe businesses should have much greater goals than simply profit, and want them to have a more positive impact on employees, the environment and society in general. Only 48% of the more than 12,000 millennials and generation Z respondents surveyed worldwide say they feel companies behave ethically, and just 47% feel business leaders are helping society.

In general, millennials are interested in forward-thinking companies that recognize the need for greater work-life balance; that promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace; and that offer flexible work arrangements, such as collaborating with teammates while working remotely. They expect to work for businesses which use technology incorporating social media-style communications – such as Harmony, a component of SYSPRO ERP – that allow them to interact and engage with colleagues online, just as they do with friends and family in their daily lives.

Younger workers want to work for businesses they feel are aligned with their values, and that allow them to make a positive contribution. They prefer companies that encourage open dialogue, and which use processes that empower employees while offering them continual learning and career development opportunities. On the other hand, they are more likely than previous generations to switch jobs numerous times if they feel employers are failing to fulfill these needs.

Because many of their technical skills are based around the innovations already impacting our daily lives, millennials and Generation Z understand many of the concepts underlying Industry 4.0 that are rapidly changing Canadian manufacturing. This younger demographic is more familiar with ideas such as automated and connected systems, robotics, digitally enabled equipment (I of T), artificial intelligence, and adaptive technology, and see them as tools that free up employees for more creative tasks. Millennial workers are comfortable using new technology to tackle old problems – especially when they have beneficial social impacts – and they expect employers to be similarly comfortable applying innovation to improve process, design, efficiency or productivity.

When considering how to best engage this younger workforce, start by taking a holistic look at your own operation. Does your organizational structure encourage employee learning and development, open communication, and flexible work processes? Do you incorporate digital and technological solutions to best utilize worker skills? How are you adapting your systems to help you attract and retain the technically-skilled younger workers you’ll need to continue to operate your business in coming years?

The younger generation of workers are already changing how Canadian manufacturers operate. How well you engage this demographic will ultimately determine the future success of your business.

Dale Kehler is vice-president, solutions at SYSPRO Canada. SYSPRO is a global, independent provider of industry-built ERP software for manufacturers and distributors with offices in Burnaby, BC, Mississauga, Ont. and Halifax.