If we want young workers—both those considered millennials and those considered gen Z—we need to better understand them and what they bring to our work environments. Then, perhaps most importantly, we need to craft our jobs, processes, and working environments to enable them to thrive. I am not sure if enough manufacturers have taken these steps.

First a primer: Gen Z refers to people born in the late 1990s through the 2010s, and they are set to shape how we live, work, and play in the future. As the always-on generation that is also very connected and collaborative, technology is an extension of their identity. In contrast, millennials are born roughly between the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. They are often multitasking and looking at what’s next in terms of a career.

I recently had a conversation with Michael Walton, Manufacturing Industry Solutions Executive, Microsoft, and he shared with me some unique thoughts about the topic. Here is what he says that strikes at the heart of the difference between a millennial and a Gen Zer, “A Gen Zer would say they’re more collaborative and they want to actively engage in changing the way a company works to be: more sustainable operations, the livelihood of the brand, and how they could work in that environment to contribute to that. The word activist, I think, is more along the lines of a millennial. They would demand change; they would want to demand now that you change. It’s just a completely different approach. I think that, arguably, you might get similar results but I think that one would be far more: I’m going to participate in it; and the other one is: I’m going to watch it but I demand it.”

With all this in mind, manufacturers are now tasked with determining how to both entice the younger generation to join the workforce, while also crafting millennials to take the helm, which will require millennials to make a shift.

“I think they have to be willing to take on more risk and have a learn-it-all culture. Learn-all versus question-all,” explains Walton. “I mean, it’s good to question and it’s good to constantly reevaluate things but in many ways, doing it from the aspects of trying to learn-it-all, to have excellence in your job, and be committed in a relationship with your employer.”

The manufacturing world is the one to have that type of a relationship. As Walton explains, they need to feel a sense of commitment and loyalty to a brand, to a brand that they’re working for in a product that you make.

To help, Microsoft has launched a global skills initiative aimed at bringing more digital skills to 25 million people. This will bring together every part of the company, combining existing and new resources from LinkedIn, GitHub, and Microsoft, and it is grounded in three key areas of activity.

  1. The use of data to identify in-demand jobs and the skills needed to fill them.
  2. Free access to learning paths and content to help people develop the skills these positions require.
  3. Low-cost certifications and free job-seeking tools to help people who develop these skills pursue new jobs.

According to Microsoft calculations, global unemployment in 2020 may reach a quarter of a billion people. In the United States alone, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the country may witness a 12.3 point increase (from 3.5% to 15.8%) in the unemployment rate, equating to more than 21 million newly out-of-work people. Many other countries and continents face similar challenges. A bulk of this comes from those in lower educational attainment, people with disabilities, people of color, women, younger workers, and individuals who have less formal education.

“There’s a good deal of labor out there that wants a shot. They want to increase helping their family and their income, but they’re 32 or 35-years-old and they don’t have a four-year degree,” says Walton. “Isn’t it easier to take someone with an aptitude and an earnest to do the job and wants to actually elevate their standard of living if they didn’t have a four-year degree? They’ve already proven themselves valuable.”

Coming at it from another angle, we also see millennials have an opportunity to bring something new to the manufacturing industry. Because of their purchase power and passion, they can bring that enthusiasm to the workplace and help pick up the pace around things such as sustainability—and in my conversation with Walton he brought up an interesting epiphany he had a long time ago about sustainability that still resonates today.

“I think most people have their heart, in the right place, to be able to make the world a better place. But let me share this with you,” he says. “If I’m a company that makes flour, I don’t get to make flour, if the small truck business for delivery, the trucking company, can’t stay in business. If I keep squeezing the margins out of that company, and I can’t help them to operate more efficiently or to work with me more efficiently, then that small business is going to be out of business. If they’re out of business, others are out of business, and so I’m not going to get my product. If I then don’t act sustainable to upstream from that to the grower and helping the grower to have better sustainable practices and I’m not then going to get the wheat or whatever product I need to make my flour.”

He goes on to say that the company isn’t going to be able to deliver it upstream because most transportations are run by the “mom and pops.” Squeezing them and not helping with sustainable practices isn’t going to help in the long run.

“Not only do I need to be able to have conservation of the different aspects from an ecological perspective but more importantly now I got to pull in the aspects of keeping these companies in business,” he says. “Because if I don’t help them, if I don’t work with them, then I’m not going to be in business. It’s just that simple.”

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