Author: Jeff Koeppel, Georgia-Pacific Senior Vice President, Operations
Earn a college degree, move to a major city, and land a white‐collar job in the knowledge economy – that's the path many millennials have been taught to follow.
But that route isn't always viable. Five‐ and six‐figure student loan debt, skyrocketing housing costs and wage stagnation for all but the top earners are making postgrad life unaffordable for many young people.
It's time for millennials to consider another career option, one that our culture's narrow focus on college tends to overlook. And that's manufacturing.
The nature and earning potential of manufacturing work are changing. Demand for skilled trade workers is surging. Better yet, training for a career in the skilled trades is economically savvy and typically leads straight to a job with competitive pay, often in an area of the country with a lower cost of living.
Small Towns Can Mean Big Opportunities
Millennials, the best‐educated generation in history, are flocking to major metropolitan centers. The number of educated millennials living in New York City grew by 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. That's four times the city's overall growth rate.
But city living isn't all it's cracked up to be. In millennial hubs like Boston and San Francisco, rents have outpaced wages for the past 50 years.
Many young people can't afford those rents, given a thin job market and a huge student debt burden. This summer, millennial unemployment topped 7 percent, roughly 3 percentage points higher than the jobless rate across all age groups. And Americans collectively hold $1.4 trillion in student debt.
Simply put, it can be difficult for many young people to make a comfortable living in America's big cities. To some it may seem unconventional, but they may want to consider finding work the way their forebears did generations ago, by seeking their fortunes in smaller towns and communities.
America's manufacturing sector needs them. A wave of baby‐boomer retirements is expected to open up 2.7 million manufacturing jobs by 2025. That's not counting the 700,000 new positions that will need to be filled as the sector continues to grow.
The Factory’s Fallacy
Millennials have generally shunned manufacturing jobs, viewing them as dreadful, dirty, dangerous dead ends. But manufacturing today has taken a different path from your so‐called Grandfather's factory experience. In fact, technology has significantly changed the factory work of even a generation ago. Modern manufacturing requires an unprecedented degree of tech savviness, trouble shooting and problem‐solving skills. For instance, employees at Georgia‐Pacific's Green Bay, Wisconsin, paper mill have to program, manage and repair automated, laser‐guided forklifts.
The firm Softwear Automation is developing a sewing robot capable of making over 1,000 T‐vshirts in eight hours. BMW's manufacturing campus in Greer, South Carolina, currently uses about 2,300 robots on its assembly line.
Innovations like these are changing manufacturing job descriptions. Employers are looking for workers with uniquely human abilities – like creativity, communication and collaboration. In fact, eight in 10 manufacturing executives think their industry suffers from a shortage of human talent.
Paving A More Affordable Career Path
Manufacturing jobs also aren't likely to add to the student debt crisis. Many don't require a four‐year college degree – or the tens of thousands in costs that come with it. Instead, manufacturing workers often learn their trades through apprenticeships, which can pay them as much as $60,000 to develop high‐demand skills. Post‐training salaries are even higher. The average manufacturing worker's annual salary including pay and benefits in 2016 exceeded $82,000.
And given that most manufacturing in America takes place outside high‐cost cities, those wages can underwrite a more affordable lifestyle. The top five states for manufacturing jobs are all in the Midwest and South. These five states – Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Alabama – also rank in the top half for affordability.
The conventional wisdom seems to say that a traditional college education and an apartment in the city are the key ingredients for professional success in the modern economy. But that's not necessarily the case. Opportunity abounds in American manufacturing, especially outside the nation's biggest cities. America's young people should consider seizing it.