By Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

For as long as he’s been working with the equipment manufacturing sector on workforce development, CustomED CEO Rusty McCarty can’t wrap his head around one odd contradiction.

In an industry that thrives on the talent of its sales force, how is it that so many employers seem to struggle with selling manufacturing to potential employees as a great career option?

“I have yet to see the industry take that same amazing salesmanship ability and talk about their industry or company to the future workforce,” McCarty said. “The passion in that sales pitch is something that would resonate really well with schools and communities.”

The industry’s struggle to find skilled workers is compounded, McCarty says, by a tendency to think of vacant positions as a short-term challenge instead of a long-term objective. Today’s labor shortages are not a new issue, he told the Association of Equipment Manufacturers’ recent Thinking Forward summit in Wichita, but rather the result of decades where employers neglected to cultivate a future workforce.

While the problem may be complex, he says the answer is simple—the employer of 2017 needs to “think like a farmer,” planting the seeds today that will bloom into tomorrow’s crop of laborers.

McCarty notes research that finds that, by the early age of 12, most people have established a mindset about the type of activities they do and do not enjoy. In his role as an education partnership developer, he’s found that if young children don’t learn to love working with their hands and building things, employers will struggle to attract them to manufacturing jobs later in life.

That means there’s an enormous need for companies to develop programs that expose young people to activities and skillsets that could tie into future manufacturing careers. And while McCarty admits that there’s no guarantee that a child who participates in such a program today will come work for an individual company in the future, he says that exposure is important enough to balance out any uncertainty.

“Pretending they're magically going to get it from passing your sign on the way to their school isn’t going to get you anywhere,” he says. “You need to find a way into that community or into that school building.”

Here, then, are five types of programs McCarty says won’t help fill vacant positions today, but that any company can use to start cultivating the workforce of tomorrow:

1) Curriculum and program kits. In an era of decreasing education funding and increasing class size, McCarty sees an opportunity for companies to alleviate the strain that schools endure in trying to expose kids to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

By putting together creative curriculum and program kits and making them available to schools free-of-charge, McCarty says corporations can foster the next generation’s interest in STEM fields while building their skillset from an early age. He notes the learning package developed by petroleum giant BP, which is used in more than two million classrooms nationwide, but says these kits can be valuable as well when deployed on a much more local scale.

While such a strategy can result in vast exposure, McCarty says the connection to the workforce of the future is not as strong as in other methods.

“This is your biggest crapshoot,” McCarty said. “Your reliability to actually secure future employees is probably pretty low, but the reach can be very large for any sort of content that builds interest in your area of work.”

2) Student organizations and clubs. Oftentimes, the fondest memories from middle and high school involve extracurricular activities and clubs. Groups like 4-H and the engineering club provide kids with a space in which to share common interests and develop friendships, but they also begin to shape their perceptions of future career opportunities.

In the wake of the Great Recession, McCarty says that government funding and charitable donations for student organizations have fallen off considerably. This leaves these groups, and especially their national charter organizations, willing and eager to find corporate partners.

He says the wide variety of different types of student groups offers employers the ability to find—or even create—a club that engages young people in an area of interest specifically tailored to that employer’s line of work. And while supporting a student organization can require a significant outlay of time and energy, McCarty notes that it creates a very deep connection.

“You’re making an investment in those students,” McCarty says, “telling them directly ‘I believe in you.’ That’s a very powerful investment in getting that potential worker interested in you someday.”

3) Corporate social responsibility and mentoring initiatives. Often viewed as simple public relations tools, corporate social responsibility and mentoring initiatives are also a valuable opportunity to make an impression on young people, instill in them the value of work and get them excited about a specific area of interest, McCarty says.

“These are really powerful ways to make a connection between your company and the youth of today, because it puts you and your team on the ground, side-by-side with the community,” he says.

Xerox, 3M and SAP are all examples of companies that have incentivized volunteerism and mentoring by their employees, McCarty says, to great effect from a workforce standpoint. He says that’s because the companies specifically train their employees in an “elevator pitch” to explain what the company does and why it’s an exciting place to work, enabling kids to visualize themselves in that line of work someday.

4) Competitions. Nothing’s quite as engaging as a battle of skills, wits or knowledge. But while the thrill of competition is a powerful motivator, McCarty says it can also teach young people important vocational skills, without their awareness, necessarily, that they’re even learning.

“The win is important, but the process can get people really engaged in something they didn't know they were interested in,” McCarty says.

Prominent competitions for school-aged children have included the Human-Powered Vehicle, AEM’s Construction Challenge and the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, but McCarty says an enterprising organizer can turn just about any activity into a competitive event. The impact on young people is often considerable, he says, creating lasting memories and sharpening problem-solving skills.

But McCarty warns that competitions are not for everyone, citing Gallup polls in recent years that have found only 65 percent of today’s young people enjoy competitive activities.

5) Academies, trade school alliances and scholarships. When all other workforce development efforts have fallen short, sometimes it’s simplest to just start your own school and train workers yourself. At least, McCarty says that’s the mindset behind efforts like Heineken University and Disney University—both corporation-created academies intended to train a workforce that lacks the specific skills needed to succeed in their areas of emphasis.

But for employers to whom such a measure seems excessive, McCarty says there are more easily-achievable objectives, like launching partnerships with local trade schools and scholarships to high-performing students. He cites Motorola’s creation of talent pipelines through tech universities and even high school MAGNET programs, and says SAP has developed a program that rewards high-performing students with scholarships and monitors their academic progress to ensure the money is well spent.

“SAP gets their claws into you with their scholarship money, and has good reliability that they’re going to pull you through to their workforce,” McCarty says.

Each is an example of a workforce development initiative that is resource intensive and narrowly-targeted, McCarty says, but offers employers a high probability of recruiting the type of talent they’re hoping to attract.

Add to that list of options the growing prevalence of internships as a bridge to fulltime employment, and McCarty says modern manufacturers have many means at their disposal to turn enthusiastic young people into productive members of the workforce—as long as the young people get something out of it, too.

“You want to provide them opportunities to grow,” he told AEM’s Thinking Forward conference. “When you have interactions with the future workforce as a company, you want to make sure you are investing something and giving them some value back.”

McCarty points to studies that indicate the incoming generation of workers is less concerned with income and occupation, and more concerned with having a purpose, a place and a lifestyle. He says that means employers must find ways to meet these expectations, and demonstrate their trustworthiness through interactions with potential employees from a young age.

While there might not be an instantaneous, guaranteed return on these efforts, McCarty says it’s nonetheless crucial to reversing the declining availability of a skilled manufacturing workforce.

“You almost have to do it because it’s the right thing to do for your industry,” McCarty says. “There is certainly an industry advantage in having this conversation together, because if you’re all in it together, you’re helping everybody succeed.”

Rusty McCarty was one of several speakers at AEM’s Thinking Forward conference in Wichita, KS at Textron Aviation. The next free event will be Aug. 15 in Redmond, WA, featuring a presentation from Microsoft’s D’Arcy Salzmann on how HoloLens is using Augmented Reality to change the way construction projects and sites operate. Hear how embracing the 3D world can impact project speed and accuracy as well as the potential applications to manufacturing.

Dusty Weis is AEM’s strategic communications manager, covering the impact that new and emerging trends and technologies will have on the construction, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @dustyweis.