As they strive to digitize their operations and supply networks, manufacturers increasingly find themselves in direct competition with high-profile, high-tech companies like Google and Apple when it comes to attracting the talent needed to execute on Manufacturing 4.0 strategies.

In order to successfully compete for that digital talent, manufacturers should take a number of steps, including evaluating how much they are willing to pay for tech talent and how they create a compelling digital brand for their companies using social media.

Those were among several recommendations presented yesterday  by members of an expert panel on a Manufacturing Leadership Council Critical Issues Debate webcast entitled, “How Can Manufacturing Compete for Digital Talent?” Panelists, moderated by ML Council Co-Founder David R. Brousell, included:

  • Caralynn Nowinski Collens, Chief Executive Officer, UI Labs;
  • John Golding, Client Success Manager, and James Clevenger, Strategic Account Manager, Development Dimensions International
  • Lorrie Ritter, Human Resources Manager, LAI International.

Panelists noted that attracting software developers, data specialists, and workers with other key digital skills directly enhances the success of digital strategies and, increasingly, manufacturers’ profitability. Manufacturers that are digital leaders tend, on average to see profits that are between 20% and 35% higher than digital laggards and tend to be able to create more, higher-paying jobs, said UI Labs’ Collens.

“We see the promise of digitization, but we also need the skills to address this opportunity,” said Collens.

But, in many respects, manufacturers are at a disadvantage in attracting digital talent compared to companies in technology, financial services, and other industries, in part because of the poor public perception of manufacturing. Already, Brousell noted, an estimated 400,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled in the U.S. “Layer on the emerging requirements for workers in the digital era, and it is not hard to see the enormous challenge facing our industry,” he said.

Manufacturers can improve their ability to compete for tech talent first by building a strong digital brand that is compellingly communicated online and through social media.

“The perception of manufacturing is that it is old school, dirty work, and not sexy,” said DDI’s Golding. “So you need a clear digital brand that says, ‘What are we known for in terms of how we use data and what our digital strategy is?’”

But, in order to attract younger workers with strong technical skills, that digital brand should go beyond an expression of digital strategy, said LAI’s Ritter. It should also express the company’s core values and the ways in which, by joining your manufacturing company, younger tech-savvy workers can make a difference in their communities, improve the environment, and achieve work/life balance.

“Does your website and your social media describe a work environment that they really want to work in?” asked Ritter. “We have to make manufacturing more inviting and realize that the way [younger tech workers] look for a job is very social media-oriented.”

Manufacturers seeking to compete more effectively for tech talent should also reexamine how much they are willing to pay programmers and other people with digital skills. Recent research by Burning Glass Technologies shows that tech companies, on average, pay software developers $105,227 per year, which is 12% more than manufacturing companies pay. Tech companies pay entry-level programmers an average of 5% more than manufacturing companies.

Manufacturers that don’t pay the market rate for tech talent can be hit by attrition as tech workers quickly jump to new jobs, said DDI’s Golding.

But attractive financial compensation isn’t the only—or often even the most important—factor influencing employment choices of younger tech workers. Younger tech worker value flexible work schedules, entrepreneurial opportunities, and the chance to gain new skills through continuous learning, said UI Labs’ Collens.

In the manufacturing industry, panelists noted, younger tech workers will have lots of opportunity to gain new skills and to move into new, cutting-edge technology fields. Manufacturing roles require highly-developed collaboration skills such as the ability to manage and lead virtual teams, something that Millennial and Gen X workers tend to be less skilled at than their Baby Boomer predecessors, noted DDI’s Golding.

At the same time, in manufacturing younger tech workers will have the opportunity to move into a variety of brand new technology-enabled roles–such as digital thread engineer and digital manufacturing engineer—that will grow over the next few years. Recently, Collens noted, UI Labs and its Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute unit release a list of 165 such emerging roles in manufacturing.

Besides promoting such opportunities in order to attract digital talent, manufacturers should partner with local colleges and even K-12 schools in order to define the technical skills that they will require and to inspire interest in manufacturing careers among students.