Peggy and Michael Walton, industry solution executive, manufacturing, Microsoft, discuss the skills gap in manufacturing. They talk about when a company no longer invest in its workforce, what happens when companies won’t train, and how mentoring and information support play a role. He also talks about the tech tools to engage workers, such as the IoT (Internet of Things) and AI (artificial intelligence).

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, visit www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 10/01/2020 from the archives.

Peggy Smedley: We have a skills gap that’s going on. Talk to me a little bit about that and how does Microsoft think about that? Especially when we think about manufacturing, because it’s an ever-evolving industry and it’s something we need. So, I guess the question when we consider manufacturing, people don’t look at it as sexy, and it’s part of the problem, with that, but it’s so important, we can’t live without manufacturing. It is vital to everything we do.

So, how do we say we need people to be there, but the technology and the automation is advancing? How do you make the transition in time where people aren’t going to be there?

Michael Walton:

Well, I think first of all, and I’ve given a number of presentations on this at different conferences, I think the millennial generation have witnessed, their view of manufacturing is that it’s dirty, it’s laborious, it’s intensive. I’m not going to want to be part of that. I want to be in something that’s more maybe as an office role, but every manufacturer, every one of them has corporate offices. They have planning, they have purchasing, they have warehousing, they have all types of roles. They have IT. So, there’s only approximately about 60% of that company, maybe 70%, is actually in the factories. There’s a whole wealth of jobs and a long-term career with companies that are manufacturers, where those roles are very appealing for maybe a millennial. But then I also want to add that millennials often were defined in many ways impacted by 9/11. So, it really brought about a culture of question, where now I’m going to question everything. I’m going to question whether or not this is the right way, my career, where should I stay? Should I stay with one career?

And I want to compare and contrast that to the Gen Z’s because the Gen Z’s, they don’t necessarily think like that. So, they grew up data native. They grew up in social media. In fact, it’s argued in many studies that Gen Zers are the first real electronic cloud-native generation that we’ve got in the world. And so, for them waking up and checking your social media communications, that’s fun, that’s good, that’s a state of life. Before that, in many ways, it was an act of your job. It was a labor. So, they’ve grown up with social media, spending 50 hours a week, arguably maybe even more than they do at their job, socializing, communicating on multiple platforms, living in a digital life, living on platforms with the elasticity that outperform anything prior. Whereas, I would say, now they’re looking at manufacturing jobs and I’m finding a lot of Gen Zer’s thinking, “Wait a minute. I got a career.” I see lots of people working for Procter and Gamble, a Caterpillar, a (John) Deere, a Cargill where they’re looking at it and saying, “My career could be there.

I could be there for 30 years. I could retire from there. The products they’re making are digitally transforming, and I’m interacting with those products every day. I want to work at Apple making phones. I want to work at Microsoft making Surface.” I am witnessing a true polar opposite reaction, realtime, to what I’m seeing Gen Zers think about making products and it being cooler than the prior generation.

Smedley:

So, is part of the problem, because we, we have the socially engaged generation versus the digital native generation that grew up with all of this everywhere around them, and now we have to say, “Did we not properly train?” Is that the business’s fault? Because they didn’t say, “Look, their technology’s changing exponentially. There’s so much opportunity. We need to keep training our staff constantly.” Is that part of the problem? We as businesses didn’t do what we should have done with our employees? Is business partially the blame, and government because they didn’t do it and that’s why we have this giant skills gap that you’re just describing? Because it describes, we have generation shifting here. There should have been some education about what’s happening with all this really cool technology.

Walton:

Oh, it should have been, but I got to tell you that there’s two aspects to this. So, the historical reference, you’re spot on, 100%. And however, I would argue that now what we’re seeing is an overabundance of free training. It’s available, it’s free, and more importantly, it’s like a low code, no code. So, you have all these digital natives who grew up in this environment; they’re demanding that they can solve their own problems using technology and empowerment, and unlike before where we had such a deliberate education, which we did a big miss on. Now we’ve got a group that just goes out and finds it, watches a video, gets some free training, and pretty soon they’re using these low-code, no-code things to fix their own problems. To compare and contrast. An example of that is I would have had to have trained someone in Microsoft Excel with Visual Basic or Visual C, to be able to go solve some problems on analyzing data that was coming off of a machine line to address a quality problem.

Okay, maybe I’m making the laptops. No, that’s not how a Gen Zer thinks. A Gen Zer, or others now in the industry, they get a little bit of training that maybe last two hours or an hour on something like Power BI, and it connects; they pull the data in and they start visualizing and doing insights and they solve their problem. Much different than the prior approach, but I can tell you that we had a big miss in the prior approach. There was a lot of investment, I think, in hard skills like welding and other actual heavy skills, but I saw a gross investment in the last decade in the actual training that is required for the technology aspects of the job.

Smedley:

So this leads me to think is that we have to go, I don’t want to say go back to go forward, but we have to look at that proper training to think about how do we, now have COVID I guess is the question. We now have COVID and people are locked up again. And we say, “Well, everybody can train. They could look at all these videos and everything.” But we have to have soft skills. We have to have this proper training to get people that proper mentoring, because that’s something that’s lost. Even though younger generation, you just described Gen Z, can go and watch a video and be there. They’re still, Millennials are the largest generation, if baby boomers are retiring, they’re still the largest one and you have to be able to nurture that, to be able to innovate if you want to go forward and drive. They’re going to be the leaders of everything. They’re going to be running all these corporations. So, they better know what they’re doing because Gen Z might be the ones coming up with stuff or doing things, but who’s running the ship?

Walton:

Well, it’s funny you say that because I just had a meeting with a very large global company just about an hour ago, expressing the same sentiment, and they are going to take action on it with all of their executives. I’m going to explain it to you, but it’s unfortunate that this is the kind of rigor you have to do. The company, for companies to ensure that the Millennials, that the nature of their, and furthermore, the entire company itself, that they have a training plan. It’s like companies have become so comfortable with training on demand that they’ve forgotten aspects of mentoring and activation. So, I can go take some training on demand, but where am I going to apply it? Who’s going to mentor me to tell me that I applied it well and how can I improve on it? And then through that, activating my training so that I can actually go do it. That is something I’ve witnessed is a big gap because, well, the answer literally was, and it’s been many times, “Well, the training’s on demand, they can go in the portal and get it.”

That’s not enough. There needs to be a deliberate approach to how you apply training to your employees, ensuring their position for at least the next level or two levels up for success in their career to be an effective leader, or an effective member as an individual contributor to the company.

Smedley:

Well, you and I both know this. You could have the best smartest, brightest introvert, but you’re never going to do that if you don’t know how to be a leader to get that introvert to come out and show their expertise. So, that’s why you need the best leaders. You need the best ones to get that excitement out of that introvert, who’s going to stay, because that’s what we have all these meetings right now that everybody’s going and having these Microsoft team meetings, Zoom, Skype, whatever we’re all doing, but we’re not getting the best out unless a leader knows how to draw that out. And so, when we do this right now, and COVID’s making it worse because we’re not there. We always talk about the water cooler opportunities, but even now, when we talk about it, eventually that Gen Z is going to be the largest generation and they’re going to be the leaders because they’re going to be larger than even millennials, and I think a lot of people don’t recognize that too, because that population is going to nudge past millennials.

So, we need to be able to guide that. So, when we look at this to say, how do we keep manufacturing strong? Investing in technology? How do we get manufacturing to know that they’re investing in IoT, they’re investing in AI to do the right things? How do we get that skills gap to understand so they’re investing in the right technology solutions?

Walton:

I know that it’s very difficult and it is hard work, but at the end of the day, these companies need to have a very deliberate training plan and on-demand is nice. Another degree is nice. You absolutely have to have a training plan, mentorship, and activation to get the investments made so that you can develop a strong leader. I’ll give you a case in point, and I’m probably only going to make you madder, or more emotional about it, because I have two children in college and one in high school, and there’s a common theme. Two different universities, both of them, very large universities, both studying to be medical doctors, and the third child in high school, a straight A student who she seems to be, she’s very vocal, and all three of them have (said) one thing last week while we were talking in different conversations. And they said, “Dad, it seems like all of our instructors and our professors, teachers they’ve just lost their,” and they didn’t say it this way, what they meant their emotional quotient, “They’ve lost the ability to have empathy during the lecture or conversation and they’re just talking to us.”

“They’re not teaching us. We’re not really being able to interact and we’re losing out on the training. All they care about is producing an A. They don’t care that I really learned it. I’m not getting it.” And so, I think not only are you right on the earlier comments, but now it’s only going to get to a magnitude worse for these new members that are coming into the workforce under this current COVID situation, because they’re not getting face time. They’re not developing the soft skills. I mean, they are developing some other skills that will be very helpful, but I don’t see that. In fact, I just see this mass bulk of, did you take your training? Check the box. Thank you. You must be able to go do this job now because you did it.

Smedley:

Mike, I love that you brought up empathy because I think that’s so very important because I think we need to have empathy, because too often we say these things like the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t want to try. They are on their devices. You hear that over and over and over, but in order to get our younger generation focused, to inspire them, diversity, inclusion, and all those things that we talk about, and we say, “You have to have what you just described.” We really have to be focused on this. How do you think it is important? What does it take to understand this next generation? Because I think that’s a, really the step in the right direction to what we have to do. It’s not only just having a plan, like you just said, but I think we have to understand them—that empathy is so very vital to really going that next step.

Walton:

So, I’ve got a person I work with that we’ve been dialoguing back and forth about this particular item, and let me explain, I think that this generation really is one who has to be, they want to be seen, they want to be understood, they want to be heard. And so, they feel, in many ways, their empathy is on their collar and on their shirt at all times. They question so much of everything in a way that they want to seek to understand. Not so much that it’s the wrong thing to do, but more to understand it so they can better understand how to do the right thing that really matters, and I believe for our generation, at least for me, for those that, not to date myself, but in my early fifties I grew up in more of a one directional. I was told what to do, and I was given a direction and I had to go out and solve those problems with whatever means I could that was coming back and then explaining it. Even in the military, as you had mentioned in my bio, as a Colonel in the army, I got to tell you that it took some getting used to with this next generation of officers, because they don’t see any problem whatsoever with questioning the order and asking why and asking for greater details and asking for the context.

And I’m looking at them thinking, “In my generation, I gave you the guidance, the direction. Go execute. Go figure it out.” But you can’t do that to them. Their behavior doesn’t fit that mold. They want to execute very well, and for them to do that, they want to be understood, they want to understand your point of view, they want to be able to have context, they want to feel that you actually do understand and care about them.

Smedley:

Do you think when we look and we talk about Generation Z versus Millennials, and then we get X and Y and lumping them in there, do you think we have to separate that when we talk about how to motivate and encourage? Or do you think when it comes to having that empathy, it’s very similar? Or do we really have to separate the way we think about these generations? Because again, as I said, if Baby Boomers retire and we have the traditionalist and we look at that, we’re now talking about then four generations that are still going to be active in this workforce.

Walton:

Well, I guess in my mind, at the risk of sounding like someone who is a much older generation, I do think you have to almost address them as slight differences. The Millennials that I have worked with, they’re older, they’re more mature in their jobs, and by nature, for that reason, we would want to address them differently.

Smedley:

And they hate to be called “digital natives.” They hate that expression.

Walton:

They do, in fact, I would argue they hate being called Millennials.

Smedley:

Yeah, that’s true.

Walton:

But I think there is arguably a difference. I believe that the Millennials, in many ways, not all of them to stereotype them all, but in many ways they’re defined by being a generation to question everything and to want to get it right, to seek acknowledgement, to be able to think of things differently. They were almost defined by the actual theme of “think out of the box.” I would argue Gen Z, they do the same things, but they do it more of a self-empowered way where they want guidance and direction, but I think they do it more self-empowered. They do it more privately, and I think that explains in many ways why some Gen Z are saying, “Hey, I’m going to go to this…” I’ve got a beautiful manufacturing focused, the government helped fund it here nearby me, a facility that teaches all kinds of hard skills for manufacturing, a fantastic school. My nephew went there. He earns over $80,000 a year. He’s only been in the workforce for about seven or eight years. He’s earned over 100K a couple of times. I help him because I’m always helping him, mentoring him, and guess what?

He doesn’t even have a college degree. He doesn’t even have an associate’s degree. He’s got certificates and he’s working now for a predominant manufacturer. He’s got a long-term career ahead of him. They’re approaching him to invest in him and his leadership skills and invest in him to get a four-year degree because they see a prospect for him in future plant management, or in the corporate world, in their world. So, I could tell you that he, as a true Gen Zer, looks across the table and says to me often, “I see Millennials different. I see them as someone who’s questioning everything openly, actively. They want to be vocal about it. They want to talk about it. They want it to be out there all the time. Whereas the Gen Zers, we tend to be more soft-spoken about it, although we still do the same things. We question. We’re digital natives.” I will also tell you before I close on this.

Millennials, I think are users of technology in a way that’s when they want to use it. I think Gen Zers are technology true digital native. I don’t see a line between separating their digital life and their personal life. They just don’t.

Smedley:

Well, they have multiple profiles. I mean, Gen Z, I mean, that’s their world. It’s not just one profile. It’s multiple and I think that defines them. So, if you looked at this right now and you said, the way things are, how are we going to be able to use the brain power of this younger generation, or larger corporations to help make our recovery? Because we know so manufacturers have been able to do it. Some are still trying to figure it out. Do we, as a nation, need to figure out how do we keep manufacturers going? Because smaller manufacturers help larger manufacturers, and we have to figure out, and that’s kind of what we have to do. The older generation has helped the younger generation. Is that how we have to help manufacturing. It’s we, as a society, have to help each other?

Walton:

I think that’s one aspect of it. I don’t think it’s the only aspect, but I definitely think government plays a key role. I think there’s a key trend that you should consider, and that is because of COVID and a number of other things such as trade conflicts, and of course, other considerations. It has highlighted a lot of weaknesses in the logistics side of this to include human capital, human labor. And so, what I’m witnessing firsthand are tons, not one, not a few, I mean, it is a big wave of manufacturers that are saying, “Hey, look, I’m not just going to go where the labor is. I’m going to make factories smaller rather than bigger. I’m going to make the same product in two or three geographies. I’m going to distribute my manufacturing in such a way that I’m going to have agility. I’m not going to fall victim to a labor dispute, or a certain pandemic, or a dispute between countries.”

So, I think that’s something key to take into consideration, because it does positively affect the United States and that I’m witnessing more manufacturing coming back, but not in the way of I’m building monolithic plants. It’s in a way of, “I’m going to be building things here, and oh, by the way, I’m going to build them in some other offshore country or in Germany and I’m going to build other parts in another country. That way I’m never beholden to not being able to make my product.” But the second thing I want to point out to you is, and this one’s really critical, really critical, is that manufacturers, they are overstating the kinds of education and experience that is needed to do the job. I have talked until I’m blue in the face to so many executives, asking, “Why does someone need a four-year degree to do this job? Can you explain to me why does somebody needs a two-year degree to go do this job?” In many ways I have witnessed over the last 20 years, more applicants apply for a job that have a four-year degree, and then HR says, “Well, let’s bump it up because if we’ve got an abundance of four-year degreers, maybe we need to recommend that it’s four years, and if they’ve got a master’s degree, that’s a big plus.”

I would argue, no, it’s not. I would argue it’s whether or not that person has the right character, attitude, are they willing to commit to a company long-term? Those are the kinds of things, I think, that we’re getting somewhat getting back to, because I can say at least most of the companies I work with that are starting to follow this advice. They’re seeing roles being filled, but they’re not filling them necessarily by people who have a four-year degree. It could be a two-year degree, a certificate. And guess what? As predicted with some training and mentorship, they are delivering and they are proving themselves to that company. I can’t say it enough.

Want to tweet about this article? Use hashtags #TPSS #IoT #sustainability #AI #5G #digitaltransformation #infrastructure #futureofwork #manufacturing