Strong Leadership: The Key to Shaping Millennials into Manufacturers



Employers across America are dealing with the combined effect of baby boomers retiring, a strong economy and record low unemployment. Now faced with the large labor shortage this perfect storm has created, manufacturers are looking to the next generation of workers to fill this gap: millennials.

When I talk with executives about their feelings toward the emerging workforce, some common grievances I hear include: “They don’t want to work” or “They want to be promoted every 10 minutes” or “All they want to do is play on their phones.” The resounding message is that today’s hiring managers do not see this group of workers as the answer to their needs. The fact is, millennials are the present and future workforce of this country.  So how can we bridge this gap?

First, let’s stop playing the blame game.  The term “millennial,” which is meant to simply refer to someone born between the years of 1980 and 2000, now carries with it negative connotations of being lazy and entitled. However, we all know plenty of people in their forties and fifties who act entitled and demonstrate less than stellar work ethics. We also know plenty of people in their twenties who want to work hard to establish a career. Yes, this generation may have different priorities than prior ones, but isn’t that always the case?

Secondly, let’s keep in mind some typical characteristics shared by people of this young age:

Maturity – New hires entering the workforce after high school or college are immature. This is not an insult, it is just a biological fact.  The human brain does not fully develop until the mid to late twenties. Particularly the frontal lobe, which is responsible for attention, tasks, planning, motivation, understanding future consequences of current actions and modifying emotional responses into socially acceptable reactions. Employers need to be aware of this and work to communicate with young employees regarding expectations and consequences.

Job Experience – Our perception of life is deeply based on our experiences. Many people entering the workforce have little or no experience in a full-time job role, so they may struggle, feel lost or fear failure when first getting a “real job,” thus wanting to quit.

Financial Knowledge – It can be difficult to really understand the value of money until you have to support yourself. Fiscal understanding is a big part of what motivates people to come to work everyday. When you are in your twenties, having little or no money is common. Living at home , eating ramen noodles and driving a beater of a car are all typical experiences of being young. For many, as we mature our desire for a more financially stable life grows. The value we put on money then evolves and, in turn, our attitude toward work changes.

Life Wisdom – When I graduated college, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I thought I knew it all. Life had not humbled me yet. I suspect young adults today are not much different, so it is not surprising  they want to move up the corporate food chain faster than may be realistic.

These are traits that are not necessarily specific to millennials, but are typical of most people as they enter adulthood.  My guess is that if we took an honest look back at how we were during that period in our lives, we would discover we weren’t much different.

Enlightening as this may be, how does this help our labor issue?

It all comes down to leadership. Good leadership is timeless.  From Alexander the Great to Alan Mulally (CEO, Ford Motor Company), people who provide great leadership achieve great results even in difficult situations – regardless of generation or age.

All great leaders have a few things in common that contribute to their effectiveness. They set a vision, develop a strategy to achieve that vision, communicate the strategy to workers, empower and motivate their team and execute tactical measures only if they are in support of the overall vision. Companies with engaging cultures and low turnover also have the following in common:

  • Hiring/Onboarding/Training process – Hire the right people and help them acclimate, succeed and grow.
  • Succession plans – Identify career paths for moving up in the organization as workers develop.
  • Employee feedback process – Ask workers why they stay, why they leave, what they need, etc.
  • Leadership training – Establish continual learning from the top down.
  • Commitment to being the workplace of choice – Maintain a focus on being the best workplace you can be.

Implementing the above can be an undertaking. It is often an investment of time, energy and money, but it is an investment that will pay dividends as employees gain a new understanding of personal responsibility and loyalty, while supporting your company’s vision. Instead of focusing on the differences between your workplace generations, focus on how to bridge these gaps to successfully nurture and lead employees of all ages.

Jamie Headley, Senior Business Solutions Manager
As Senior Business Solutions Manager, Jamie works as an advisor to Michigan manufacturers in the Southwest region of the state, helping them to “manufacture smarter.”  Jamie is a seasoned operations professional with expertise in change management, strategic planning, leadership, process improvement, lean implementations, cost containment and operational excellence. With more than 25 years of manufacturing and consulting experience, Jamie has served as Director of Supply Chain for Catalent Pharma Solutions, Vice President of Operations for and President and CEO of Dementia Services Group.  
Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

Categories: Leadership/Culture, U.S. Manufacturing, Workforce