Managing a Multigenerational Team at a Manufacturing Company

By Tom Morrison posted 12-10-2020 10:22


How managers can make the most of a mixed-age team to maximize its efforts.

Manufacturers in the U.S. find themselves in a challenging position as they try to find the right people to fill the job openings within their ranks. The generational gap has never been greater in the manufacturing workforce.

Thanks to people generally living longer than they did in the early part of the 20th century and looking to work longer to pad their retirement nest eggs, manufacturing companies could have five generations working under the same roof. That means folks who grew up with rotary dial telephones are working side-by-side with young people who only know of phones as texting devices that fit into their pockets. That generational gap might be more like the Grand Canyon.

But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a multigenerational workforce is destined for difficulties. In fact, just the opposite may be true. With the right managerial approach, frustrations between the old and young can be minimized, and each generation’s positives can be accentuated. The FABRICATOR spoke with Denise Ball, Workforce Development Specialist with Tooling U-SME, the workforce development division of SME that delivers competency-based, industry-driven learning and development solutions to the manufacturing community, to find out what can be done to get these different generations (Silent Generation, born 1928-1945; Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964; Generation X, born 1965-1980; Millennials, born 1981-1996; and Generation Z, born 1997-2012) to work harmoniously toward a common goal.

The FABRICATOR: Tooling U-SME’s 2018 “Industry Pulse: Manufacturing Workforce Report” suggested manufacturers that don’t do a good job of establishing a culture of recruiting and fostering manufacturing talent of all ages could be affected by annual turnover of up to 20% or higher. Are companies getting the message that they need to be aware of the needs of the different generations represented in their workforce?

Denise Ball: If you don’t perceive that there are different generations with different views, it’s kind of like sticking your head in the sand, and we don’t want that. We want people to acknowledge it and to almost embrace it in a good way. We want them to ask, “How can we leverage all the different generations and what they bring to the table so that we create an even better workplace, become even more innovative, and think of even greater opportunities than what we’ve always done in the past?”

FAB: Why do you think so many generations find themselves working in manufacturing today?

Ball: Well, the older generation really did work for the gold watch; they stuck around and are still working in manufacturing. You’re not necessarily seeing a lot of Boomers working at McDonald’s, Starbucks, or generally in hospitality, but you are seeing them in manufacturing because that really was the bedrock of our country. We were once really proud of it. We were proud to be working and making products, so I’m not surprised that there are so many generations in these companies.

Today it’s all about attitude and aptitude with the skills gap. That’s what I’m hearing from employers. They’re hiring for attitude and aptitude, so they'll work with whatever they’re given. I love that about manufacturing.

FAB: Tooling U-SME’s latest report, “6 Ways to Build a Cohesive Multigenerational Manufacturing Workforce: Prepare for the Future—Now,” highlights how a company’s culture can make people feel comfortable about what they do for a living, but also what they might be doing down the road. What can a company do to create a positive culture that embraces a multigenerational workforce and puts them in a position to focus on achieving company goals?

Ball: I think no matter what the size of the company, people need to focus on family, friends, and a fun environment. That’s what people want from small companies and even the large companies.

Small companies can pivot quickly, so they are very responsive. They really tend to create family environments, and that is resonating right now with the younger generations. They’re wanting those connections and wanting to have that family feel. Some of the older generations—and I can say that coming from an older generation—we didn’t want to work with family and friends. We weren’t looking for that in the workplace.

So companies can leverage their hand and say, “Hey, we’re going to create an environment that, even though we can't compete in the wage category, makes them love working here so that they don’t want to leave.”

As I speak across the country at different virtual events right now, I see manufacturing companies are starting to understand that they always have to accentuate the positives and really drive it home.

I talked with one company recently that is holding cornhole tournaments in the middle of the production floor for 15 minutes every day. It’s creating that engagement. In the past, engagement may have been the once-per-year holiday party. Well, they want more than that.

FAB: Some company leaders just have a knack for connecting with people, and oftentimes a company’s culture evolves from those personal relationships. What can an organization do if leadership doesn’t have that natural connection to the workforce or if an organization is too large to develop those intimate relationships?

Ball: Companies really need to solicit feedback. No matter what the company size, just ask people, “How can we improve engagement? How can we support you?”

And this is not just with a suggestion box. A company needs to do pulse surveys and engage with workers, even doing stay interviews. Why do you stay here? Why do you like our company so much? What can we be doing even better so that you want to tell everybody about the great place you're working at?

Companies should think about giving business cards to their production employees. It’s a $10 investment, but it gets the word out. Companies are branding themselves in the community as their employees give the business cards out to friends and relatives. They’re proud of where they work.

FAB: Can technology be used to optimize knowledge sharing between experienced workers and co-workers of younger generations?

Ball: Yes, I absolutely think technology can be used to do that, but I still think it comes back to culture because all the generations want to feel like they’re being heard and valued. If they all feel that way, they’re openly communicating, no matter what the technology is. There’s going to be more collaboration, period.

FAB: The “6 Ways to Build a Cohesive Multigenerational Manufacturing Workforce” report recommends building a formal training program. How is this attainable by small to medium-size businesses?

Ball: I would say that a large number of companies that we engage with on a daily basis are small to medium-size. They are seeing the value of having structured and clear training pathways for their employees. The younger generation wants as many experiences as possible, and you want to cross-train them. If you don’t show those young people their future, they’re going to find it somewhere else.

Even the smaller companies are starting to catch that vision. They see that they’re competing against other companies for this small pool of employees or skilled labor. They need to show the younger generation that they have opportunities. These companies can use online training resources, which give everyone access to knowledge almost immediately. That way a company can begin to develop those pathways and offer training even if they don’t have a formal training program established. Then it starts to evolve like anything else.

FAB: Does having a human resources expert on staff help for setting up a formal training program?

Ball: A lot of people will look to HR to do the training, but I actually think it’s a collaboration between HR and operations. Operations is where the knowledge is, as far as how the processes work. Now when they’re doing job descriptions, HR is definitely involved, but then they are getting down to the nitty gritty in determining what the knowledge, skills, and abilities are that feed into that job description.

FAB: What are the positives of having a workforce that spans the generations?

Ball: Like anything else in life, being unbalanced is usually not good. Legacy employees bring experience, and they can tell you what occurred when something was tried and what a client preferred when they previously worked with them. That is so invaluable. They have such a wealth of knowledge.

That older generation is needed to mentor the younger ones and build relationships with them. A good company culture can cultivate those relationships.

Younger employees usually offer a new way to think outside of the box. They are more likely to suggest something that has never been tried before. They aren’t easily dismissed and kind of push back and challenge conventional thinking. Just having a balance of all the generations brings a balance of different perspectives, and that’s what you want.

FAB: What do you see as the biggest mistake manufacturing companies might make when trying to manage a multigenerational workforce?

Ball: It’s believing that they’re OK doing what they’ve always done and that it’s going to work for the future. It’s really a false belief of maybe not acknowledging that the next generation wants something different than what the older generation wanted when they started their careers.

FAB: Are manufacturing companies picking up on that lesson?

Ball: I think the companies that are training their employees on the key characteristics of the different generations and how to leverage them are the ones that are going to benefit the most. The ones I see doing that are having the greatest success. They’re putting together the most collaborative teams. There’s more communication between the generations because they’ve been trained to appreciate what each generation brings to the team.

FAB: People have a good feel for Millennials now that they make up the biggest portion of the U.S. workforce. They’re tech savvy and desire consistent feedback from their supervisors, for example. How do they differ from Gen X and Gen Z?

Ball: You have to remember that Millennials and Gen X are next to each other, so you’re going to get some bridging between the two. Millennials really want a lot more experiences, while Gen Xers weren't necessarily thinking about that. Millennials also want different connections. Gen Z, up to age 23, also wants the experiences and the different connections.

If you think about it, Xers thought that you had to stay at a place three years minimum. For Baby Boomers, it was five to 10 years. The Millennials came along, and they thought 18 months is long enough. They’re like, “Oh well, I really didn't like that place. I only stayed there for three months, and it’s OK because there was a problem.” So, it is different.

Tooling U-SME’s latest report, “6 Ways to Build a Cohesive Multigenerational Manufacturing Workforce: Prepare for the Future—Now,” is available for download here.


Written by:  Dan Davis, Editor-in-Chief, for The Fabricator.