On May 14, 2014, The Washington Post published an article entitled, There are some jobs now in manufacturing. Kids just aren’t interested in taking them. The problem outlined in this article, as well as in many others about the future of manufacturing, is generally as follows: with retirements taking place across the sector, it is struggling to recruit the young talent it needs to develop the industry in the long-term. And at a company level, growing manufacturers are unable to find much of the talent needed to fill positions.

In ThomasNet’s 2014 Industry Market Barometer, 62% of North American manufacturing executives surveyed said that Millennials (those in the 18-35 age range) represent only a small fraction of their workplace. A considerable 81% indicated they currently have no plans to increase these numbers. This comes as considerable change is occurring in the sector: 3D printing and robotics have gained significant momentum as industries of interest for talented young people, and governments are thinking about manufacturing’s long-term role in fostering 22nd century economies. According to a leading government official and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, the future economy is “one that is creative, agile and harnesses technology, incorporating a manufacturing core.”

In the startup world, many of the world’s most talented young leaders are building companies with manufacturing elements. For instance, Canada’s Sameer Dhar left a fast-paced job in finance in order to start Senssasure, a smart solution for incontinence management, which recently won the Venture Prize from TEC Edmonton, Canada’s leading business incubator. Kevin Davies, one of Ashoka North America’s 45 Emerging Innovators, has made manufacturing one of his key focuses with Hop Compost, the first local fertilizer alternative to be certified organic and non-GMO, which is now competing successfully against large corporations in the sector. It is not as if manufacturing is not appealing to young people; in fact, the focus on building is one that appeals to Millennials.

Working with manufacturing companies, however, they often struggle to take advantage of the following traits that should serve as advantages for them in attracting talent.

Positioning manufacturing as a knowledge job

The reality is that manufacturing is still seen by many as being dirty: a practical and hands-on sector that does not allow for problem-solving. It only takes a tour of manufacturing plants, however, to realize that this is far from the case. Having recently visited the Procter & Gamble offices in Boston, their plant consisted of sophisticated robotics creating some of the world’s most interesting new lifestyle products. 3D printing has also become an area of interest for young leaders, highlighted in TED Talks, and in talks at prestigious institutions such as MIT, Singularity University and Cambridge. To graduate, enter manufacturing and engage with these cutting-edge technologies offers the ability to problem-solve unlike in most industries. Manufacturing is much less factory work than it is a calling, an industry with limitless potential to alter the future course of humanity.

Know that engagement starts before the job does

Manufacturers must focus on a plethora of issues: increasingly-complex global supply chains, globalization, competition from niche partners and the need to constantly invest in research & development. Assessments focused on workplace culture are rare, as the short-term returns on investment are viewed as less impactful than on developing key relationships with suppliers. Moreover, senior leaders in manufacturing have been, based on my experiences in working with them, particularly reactionary in addressing talent issues; problems are tackled only once they have become evident. But most problems linger under the surface and can be mitigated before they become irreversible. With Millennials set to comprise 50% of the workforce in less than five years, retirements taking place and consistent movement of people across sectors, manufacturers cannot assume that they will recruit the talent they need to maintain their current success, let alone thrive. In the short-term, it is wise for manufacturers to reflect on the workplaces they foster, on what kinds of employees they hire and on both who and how they target new talent.

Encourage employees to recruit

In a Wired article published on April 23, 2014, Jason Tanz wrote: “Many of these [sharing] companies have us engaging in behaviours that would have seemed unthinkably foolhardy as recently as five years ago.” With trust toward institutions having fallen considerably, people place ever-increasing amounts of trust in the reviews of their peers. This means that corporations which might usually recruit top engineering talent out of universities have less of an edge on smaller companies with smaller recruitment teams and yet more sophisticated and authentic tactics. A 60-person manufacturing company that empowers its 15 Millennial employees to become company ambassadors, for instance, can out-perform its competitors in hiring exceptional engineers, scientists and business leaders.

For manufacturing companies with tight margins and little time to focus on recruitment, the initial time invested in reflecting on its value propositions in terms of technologies used and innovative workplaces can be more powerful than organizations with massive outreach teams. Manufacturers need not suffer from being perceived as out-of-touch corporations; they can recruit and develop employees more authentically than in most sectors.

In short, manufacturing leaders will benefit by positioning the sector as an innovation hub, one that blends innovative technologies and daily problem-solving with practical experience – the opportunity to build. Examples like Sameer Dhar and Kevin Davies are two indications of what is possible when manufacturers tell the stories of their dynamic young leaders. And there are more, with many working in successful manufacturing companies. Although workplace culture and positioning as a knowledge hub might seem superfluous in the short-term, these revisions in strategy can make all the difference in ensuring the sector succeeds over the long-term.

Author: Emerson Csorba is a Director of Gen Y Inc. He is a Cambridge Trust Scholar and a Global Shaper, Cambridge Hub. Follow the Global Shapers Community on Twitter, Facebook, or at http://www.globalshapers.org

Image: Employees assemble an engine at the production line of Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Co., Ltd. in Hefei, Anhui province July 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jianan Yu