Last updateTue, 02 Jun 2020 7pm

How to Engage the Gen Z Workforce

The manufacturing industry has struggled to attract younger workers over the last two decades and now, with nearly 25% of the manufacturing workforce being comprised of baby boomers who are about to retire, the situation is becoming critical.

Many have bemoaned the fact that millennials are not generally interested in manufacturing as a career, and if they are, how difficult they are to work with, how they expect constant reinforcement and how they are not well-suited to the rigors of a structured day with expectations of productivity. This group has been taking the brunt of the frustrations experienced by older generations, especially boomers, who expect nose-to-the-grindstone work ethics, loyalty, and for employees to put jobs first.

But now a new wave of young people is approaching working age. According to Bloomberg, in 2019, the millennials will be surpassed in size by Generation Z, which will comprise 32% of the global population of 7.7 billion. Millennials will account for 31.5%.1

There are substantial differences between the mindsets of these two generations, and this will mean yet another adjustment for manufacturers who will be recruiting, training, and attempting to retain these young people.

"The key factor that differentiated these two groups, other than their age, was an element of self-awareness versus self-centeredness," says Marcia Merriem of Ernst & Young. In her report, Rise of Gen Z: New Challenge for Retailers, Merriman says millennials tend to be more focused on what is in it for them, have been more dependent on their parents, and often looked to others for solutions.

This is in contrast to Gen Zers, who seem more naturally to create their own solutions. Merriem notes, “Gen Z’s parents [have] moved toward educating and preparing their kids to avoid, plan for or deal with life’s difficulties. This stronger push to prepare them for life involves higher expectations, more responsibility and more adult-like treatment. For instance, Gen Zers have more pressure from parents to focus on their careers, with one study finding 55% of them saying their parents put pressure on them to gain professional experience during their high school years.”2

These influences are creating a group of young people who are already more engaged, more entrepreneurial and more goal-oriented than millennials. They are more self-reliant and have an advanced awareness of the world around them and how they fit into it. They were born into our “always-on” society, which may mean they end up being one of the most ambitious, hard-working and innovative generations in history, according to Merriem.

However, that also means that gaining their loyalty and trust will not be easy. They are impatient and will quickly discount those who can’t immediately deliver on their needs or complicate their lives in any way. This translates into extremely high expectations and a high bar for anyone who engages with them, as employers or as businesses coveting their dollars.

The challenge then is for manufacturers and plant operators to determine how best to engage with this generation to meet the needs for skilled workers.

In a recent Industry Week webinar, John Frehse, senior managing director at Ankura, and Kylene Zenk, director of manufacturing practice at Kronos, offered five ways to create a Gen Z Workplace.

Frehse noted that Gen Zers use an average of five screens per day. Technology is and always has been at the center of their lives. “They don’t know what life was like without a cell phone or high-speed internet. This has allowed them to always be connected to information and people.” They will be entering the workforce expecting that flexibility and accessibility in the workforce.

As it stands now, and has for some time, only one out of three parents would encourage their child to pursue a career in manufacturing. “But you need enough people to run lines,” said Frehse. “People are shutting them down or instituting massive amounts of overtime to keep things running. Forget about the financial implications; think about burnout!”

So, to get and keep the attention of Gen Zers, manufacturers will need to focus on things like culture and marketing the company as a unique employer and different from the shop down the street.

Five Ways to Create a Gen Z Workplace

Recognizing Work/Life Balance

To attract Gen Zers, manufacturers will need to give them appropriate time off. Many hours of overtime will not go over well with this group, which will also need time to pursue other passions, some of which involve “bigger world” issues like the environment.

Flexibility will be key to working with this generation so ensure they understand there is a possibility for swapping shifts or taking off a day. Be sure to make it easy to take off the agreed-upon time, and that using it is encouraged by management. Traditional shift schedules may not be the best fit, so if at all possible, look at alternatives.

Vacation packages need to be competitive for your area. Manufacturers must see what others are offering, because employees will look at this as part of the experience.


Gen Zers have had a lot of exposure to information from many sources and feel they already have a lot of knowledge. Allow them to share their ideas and opinions and give them managers who will be invested in their performance. They have been part of decision making in their homes, so it will be important for them to have input in improving the work process as well.

Show them the results of their work; have analytics that can show how well they did. “Did I win?” If you can’t answer that, they will stop trying so hard and eventually will leave.

They don’t want to know how much they made, they want to know how that impacts the company. Share the value of their work with them.

One way to do this with hourly workers is to have performance reviews. They need a process in place to get feedback. Supervisors also need to get out of the back office and to work on the floor with these employees.


Like millennials, Gen Zers do need to be recognized for their performance and for their ideas. It is also important they be allowed to take active roles and get feedback when working on the development of new products, processes and solutions. Ensure they feel their insights are respected and considered.

Career Growth

To keep Gen Zers, manufacturers will need to understand how they define success, and that does not necessarily mean money or position of leadership. What is it they want to accomplish? Gen Z is used to being trained and, while working side-by-side works for some, this generation learns best through short videos and seeing how to do something. They are used to training themselves with the right tools. Videos are among the best, least expensive ways to do it. It’s not necessary to have videos with high production values; just have video.


At work, Gen Zers need to have ready access to the information and technology they use in their personal lives. Manufacturers should be capitalizing on a familiar experience. It is not that difficult, but this is something that the manufacturing industry is hesitant to move toward. There is a belief in some quarters that technology is a distraction, but in fact, it is an enablement tool.

Mobile devices are a must, and not just for millennials or Gen Zers. All generations are using smartphones so if, as a manufacturer, you are not building these into your business strategy, you’re missing the boat.

Technology also allows you to get information out to the workforce, simplifies tasks and provides new ways to educate. With the right technology, workers will be more productive and engaged, which leads to higher levels of productivity.


Valve manufacturers and plant operators are competing with many other sectors for the same people. It is possible to future-proof your business by implementing practices to attract, engage and train the next generations.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is senior editor of VALVE Magazine.

1 These figures are based on Bloomberg analysis of United Nations data and use 2000/2001 as the generational split.

2 High School Careers Study, Millennial Branding, February 2014  

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