Everyone wants that new thing. What we need however, is someone to build the new thing. That is what keeps Mike Nager of Festo Didactic up at night, making sure the manufacturing workforce of tomorrow is bolstered. Mike is on the show this week discussing how he is trying to ensure that manufacturing jobs stay relevant, in a world of so much competition. You may be surprised to find out that the marketing department could and should play a big role in this.
Manufacturing Jobs for Manufacturing Companies Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate?
Carman Pirie: Happy to be here. And you?
Jeff White: I’m doing well.
Carman Pirie: Nice.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: A special return guest today.
Jeff White: Yes, it is. And just very different. Interesting topics.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Always.
Jeff White: And very unique experiences over most marketers. Multi-time author, including a recent children’s book which is just absolutely gorgeous.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think it’s really… Today’s topic, it’s just a interesting… It’s a cool thing for us to try to wrap our heads around. It impacts everyone in manufacturing. It frankly impacts every citizen. And a lot of people talk about it, but I don’t know, it still just doesn’t get enough of the right kind of attention, I think. People talk about concerns about skill shortage, and who’s going to actually fill the jobs in manufacturing of tomorrow, and you know, outside of the HR function, I think most people…
Jeff White: There’s a lot of finger crossing. That’s about it. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: You talk about it, but yeah, it’s not really something you’re focused on, right?
Jeff White: Yeah. And not often engaging marketing minds in how to think about that.
Carman Pirie: And today’s guest I guess is looking at what is marketing’s role here? What role does marketing have to play in trying to make this all better?
Jeff White: Yeah, so excited to have Mike Nager with us again. Mike is the Business Development Manager with Festo Didactic. Welcome back to The Kula Ring, Mike.
Mike Nager: Yeah. Thank you, guys. It’s really great to be back. I feel very honored.
Jeff White: We’re pleased you’re here.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s awesome to have you back on the show, Mike. And without all of the technical hiccups that happened in our previous episode. I say that now and this is going to go completely sideways.
Jeff White: Oh, boy. Yeah. No, we’re not gonna go into that. Mike, tell us a bit about yourself and what you’ve been up to since we last chatted. Love to hear a bit more about your new book, as well, and kind of what it aims to do.
Mike Nager: Sure. Sure. So, as you mentioned, I work for Festo Didactic. Festo Didactic is the world’s largest supplier of equipment and curriculum used for training the next generation of technicians, and engineers, and maintenance mechanics. We operate all over the world. Started in Germany, is now in many, many countries, and what we’re doing is we’re trying to fight the skills gap. Skills gap is defined as employers that are needing people to come in their doors with a certain set of skills, technical skills usually, PLC programming, robot programming, industrial maintenance troubleshooting, those are kind of the traditional ones. Now, with smart manufacturing coming up, we’re looking for people that have maybe artificial intelligence skills, the ability to understand how machine learning can affect the process.
So, the company I work for, Festo Didactic, puts all this domain knowledge into a training package so that students can learn about this before the first day on the job. So, what we’re trying to do is reduce that on-the-job training aspect by a little bit so that the students have a hands-on idea of how to do all this thing. And hands on is really important, because theoretical knowledge isn’t good enough anymore. You have to be able to know how the equipment operates, how to load the program, for example, and that’s what we aim to do.
In my particular function, I create what are called learning factories. So, imagine an assembly factory that’s assembling a cell phone, for example, scaled down so that it would fit inside a typical classroom at a university, and students get to see how a cell phone is made from the time a customer orders it all the way through the production process to delivery. And that’s kind of our holistic approach.
Carman Pirie: This may sound like kind of a strange question. I don’t know. But as you go down that path, and we’re providing these training modules, et cetera, into universities, to other postsecondary education, and undoubtedly there’s uptake. There’s a demand for this. But we’re also talking about the skills gap and the labor shortage, so I’m just… Do you feel like in some ways the world of manufacturing in that educational context just has a lot of competition from other sexier sectors or sexier industries? Or is it that there’s just not enough people to train regardless? Is it just a lack of people and that’s it? Help me understand what you’re seeing on more of the front lines of this.
Mike Nager: Okay. Yeah. That’s a very good observation. So, the Western countries, U.S., Canada, Europe, we’re facing kind of a demographic shift, right? The Baby Boomers are moving out. The population overall is getting older, not getting younger, so that’s leading to less workers as a possible pool of potential candidates. So, if you look at… What we’re going to discuss a little bit later is looking at the skills gap and the employment kind of the same way that you look at the sales funnel. You know, you start at the top of the sales funnel with the total available market for customers, and then you kind of whittle it down to what is your product serving, and what’s the product available market, and you do all these kind of fancy calculations.
Well, you can do very similar things with labor and attracting new employees. There’s a pool of people, maybe between 20 years old and 50 years old, that potentially could be employees of your company, and as you get down through this funnel it gets smaller and smaller. So, part of the issue is the skills of the people that are inside that funnel is kind of limiting the size of it, and then to your point, manufacturing is looking for the exact same employees that finance is looking for, that medicine and medical is looking for, what the information companies and social media companies are looking for. Everyone wants smart, knowledgeable, good soft skill type employees that are 20, 25, 30 years old, and yeah, manufacturer A is not competing against manufacturer B for those people. Well, they are, but they’re also competing against Trader Joe’s that’s advertising $20 an hour to come work for them, or for more of the sexier industries as you described it.
So, that’s a big part of the plan, or big part of the problem I should say.
Carman Pirie: Do you feel that manufacturers are starting to understand that? Or do you think that there’s still an awful lot of them out there that just think they’re competing against other manufacturers for the talent?
Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah. I think that is correct. I don’t think they realize how broad the competition is for talent. And that’s kind of what my night job is. Actually, it’s not a night job, it’s a hobby, so you mentioned that I’m an author of books. Those books don’t generate revenue or a profit, so I call it a hobby, but what I did is especially during COVID, because my travel was highly restricted and I had a lot of spare time that I’d normally be traveling, I set about to writing books for people that are not in the manufacturing industries but should be aware of it. So, the first one I wrote was geared towards high school students and high school counselors to talk about smart manufacturing and it’s a neat place to go to work, and you might want to consider it. But that book was already kind of preaching to the choir by the time a kid is 15, 16. His or her path is already set, pretty much, so that book was only going and approaching people that had already self-selected themselves in some way to be in a technological field. Maybe not considering manufacturing, but with this book, maybe if they read it they’d be like, “Oh, that would be kind of neat to make things.”
So, the last one that I wrote is a picture book, a rhyming picture book aimed at eight year olds, so that the idea was that parents could read this with their kids before bedtime and there would be nice color photos of cool looking little robots moving around the factory, hanging from the ceiling, and I kind of name them funny names that kids would enjoy, and the idea there is let’s expand that sales funnel that we talked about so that more people are gonna consider it at the very top. And I figured about eight years old was where it had to be approached. I don’t think most manufacturers when they’re looking or considering talent and have their meetings with HR about how to get it are thinking at all about an eight year old.
Jeff White: That’s a 12-year-plus sales cycle, man. That’s gonna take a while.
Carman Pirie: It’s gonna take a while. Yeah. That’s only slightly longer than the normal B2B manufacturing sales cycle, as it turns out.
Jeff White: Yeah. You might be onto something. Illuminating the dark parts of the pediatric funnel. That sounds really horrible when you say it like that. But I mean I get it. One of my first gigs out of university was working for a large forestry company who also owned a number of manufacturing companies, and their entire goal by hiring a designer like myself, and a couple of other designers and developers, was to create interactive content to hit kids in elementary school to tell them that there were great jobs in forestry. You know, so that was in the late ‘90s. Fairly prescient for a pretty conservative company to approach it that way.
You know, it’s interesting what you say about kind of you’re competing against Trader Joe’s and you’re competing against others who are… We’re starting to get-
Carman Pirie: Finance, medical, pharmaceutical. I think it’s-
Jeff White: It’s across the whole board and they’re all kind of offering living wage levels of employment. How do you think… How do you compete with that? Because I still think manufacturing suffers from a bit of an image problem amongst that group in terms of understanding the level of interesting things that are going on, how many opportunities there are, and plus, if it’s a field you’re interested in you could go for a very long time and kind of grow your career within those manufacturers. So, a children’s book is a great first step to kind of make people aware, but how do we communicate that these are sexy jobs, they are interesting, and they’re going to pay better than living wage type salaries?
Mike Nager: Yeah, so I think you’re absolutely right. I think there still is a very negative image of manufacturing. Not completely unfounded, by the way. You know, since the 1990s we’ve lived in a world of globalization where manufacturing was offshored to other parts of the world, and people saw shrinking job opportunities. They really weren’t shrinking, they were shifting, right? With all the current talk in the last two, three years, looks like that globalization model is changing pretty radically, so we can expect to see manufacturing coming back to places either in the U.S., or Canada, or nearby, in Mexico or Latin America.
But it still suffers from that negative image. Dark, dirty, dangerous, dingy, but if you walk into a world class manufacturing plant, what are you gonna see? Well, you guys know. You’re gonna see sparkling equipment, clean floors, professionals on the floor working on very expensive and sophisticated equipment. So, what can an individual manufacturer do? You know, so I’ve always worked in customer-facing positions, usually for industrial control companies before I started at Festo Didactic, so we spend a lot of time in marketing looking for new customers. I would say marketing and sales probably work very closely, or hopefully work very closely together in most companies, and thousands and hundreds of thousands or many millions of dollars are spent approaching and trying to identify and capture customers. And my thought is that marketing message that’s used to attract customers, that power and that concept could be used to try to attract employees and talent into an organization.
So, I don’t see that happen very often, or it’s not immediately noticeable if you go to online job advertisements and look at it. If you’re reading the text, it wouldn’t be that different from reading text in 1985 in the paper where someone was asking for a PLC programmer and listing all these things in kind of a boring manner. Very focused on the company’s needs and not really approaching it from, well, what’s in it for that person that might apply?
So, my idea, and I floated it on LinkedIn, and a couple articles that got a little bit of back and forth going, is why not have marketing approach this talent issue with the same intensity as you look for customers? Because as you mentioned in the beginning, everyone says this is a top three concern. Talent. So, why not put the money where the mouth is in that case?
Carman Pirie: Well, it’s interesting because as Jeff was saying, you mentioned living wage, I think we’re way beyond just talking about are the wages keeping pace. We have salary samesies now, I think we can say, across a broad range of categories. We have… You know, you mentioned career opportunities, like the notion somebody could advance within a particular manufacturer. You know, you guys have children, I don’t, but I’m gonna suggest to you that the kids don’t care about that, because they’ve got plenty of career opportunities regardless. I think they can bounce… I mean, we hear people talking about a recession and there’s under 4% unemployment. We have a full employment recession basically being talked about.
So, you know, it comes down… I will both roll my eyes and ask the question at the same time. Well, because I kind of roll my eyes a bit at the Simon Sinek, “It starts with why,” kind of like everything is about saving the planet or something, sometimes when you talk through that lens… And I’m a jaded old man sometimes and I think that comes across. But manufacturing is competing in that world and when you talk about competing with a software startup, or the finance, or the medical technology, or pharmaceuticals, some of those categories are a bit better at communicating their why and connecting with prospective young talent at that level, aren’t they?
Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah. I think we see those examples almost on a daily basis of industries and organizations that kind of get it, right? There’s a lot of hubbub about people wanting to have their work meaningful, not just a good living wage paycheck, and you know, I think there’s some merit to that. I think there’s some truth to it. I also think it’s a little bit exaggerated, but it’s still an important aspect of it. But that’s certainly something that could and should be exploited. You know, a lot of manufacturing is kind of like a black box. You really don’t know what’s going inside the organization. Even literally, you pass a big building on the side of the highway. It has no windows. Steel walls or concrete walls. And you literally don’t know what’s going on inside that building, that there’s robots running around, there’s cool technologies, there’s high wages.
Part of the idea is let’s not make it a black box anymore. Let’s expose this stuff to the general public. So, things like mission statements, they could be an important part of it. You’re working to produce products and services that are environmentally friendly or have that social advantage or social… I can’t think of the word, but help society improve in some way. Make that visible. From a job standpoint, what you’re competing against is the supermarket that has a huge flag outside saying, “Come work for us for $16 an hour and in three months you’ll be promoted to assistant manager and you’ll make $19.50 an hour.” That’s the visibility into a little bit of that job and okay, what’s my career progression going to be?
Most manufacturers I would hazard to guess it’s completely unknown until you make it through four levels of interviews and then you find out what the compensation might be. And I don’t think that’s a viable solution anymore. You can’t hold the cards that close to your chest because everyone’s out there looking for the same few people that want to be hired.
Carman Pirie: I love when you bring up like Trader Joe’s, or the supermarket down the street or whatever as the competition, because it’s just that… Man, it just drives the point home. I’m curious, Mike. You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and looking at the marketplace, and globally, in fact. Do you see any manufacturers in any particular market that you’ve kind of identified and said, “You know what? They seem to really get it. Of all the people I’ve seen, man, these people seem like they’re changing their approach.”
Mike Nager: Yeah, so the best example I can think of, and unfortunately it’s a little bit dated, was that General Electric had done a whole series of campaigns and advertisements a few years ago before they had their big troubles that they have now, and it was aimed directly at talent. So, it was a TV commercial, it was probably on one of the Super Bowls, and it was the idea of there was a bunch of young people, just graduated from college with software engineering, or software degrees, sitting around talking about what their new first job was, right? So, it’s all job number one right after university, and the one guy says that he works for General Electric and he’s making turbines that save 3% of the energy cost, and it’s gonna save the polar bears, and everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but they’re kind of muted, and the other guy is like, “Oh, I’m working for Silicon Valley and we’re making an app where you can put hats on top of your cat in photos,” and everyone’s like, “Oh, wow! That’s really cool!”
So, it’s probably available on the internet, but they were actually doing a couple things. First of all, they were looking for talent. Second of all, they were showing, “Hey, we’re doing something substantial in the world. You can come and be part of it.” And then they were also giving a little wink to the flashier type of industries, especially Silicon Valley, right? Because Silicon Valley came out and they just blew all the pay scales out of the water if you could get into one of those companies. I mean, you really made it, right?
Carman Pirie: Right, right.
Mike Nager: So, that’s the best example that I can think of right now.
Carman Pirie: It’s interesting that that’s still, that little kind of a wink to putting the hats on the cats, right? It kind of shows a little bit of insecurity at the same time, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s like they feel like they have to-
Jeff White: Kind of poke fun?
Carman Pirie: Right. And I kind of feel like in some ways that’s manufacturing… I mean, we even see it frankly when I think about agencies that focus on manufacturing, because that’s our world, and so many of them call themselves industrial marketing agencies, and then they don’t necessarily want to emphasize often the more high tech nature of today’s manufacturing. And I think if we kind of leaned into that versus try to justify it, there’s a lot of coolness there, right?
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: And solving real problems. But yeah, it’s just interesting to me that a company at the scale of GE at that time would still feel compelled to-
Jeff White: But maybe they just needed to bring some humor into it.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I’m not trying to poke fun at the ad without actually going back and watching it, but…
Jeff White: Mike, I do think that… Of course, what Festo is doing in terms of these factories in a box and that sort of thing, are you finding that that also is helping to drive more interest in the sector? Do schools that implement that kind of platform so that students can actually learn on the real tools, do they see an uptick in interest from students who are looking to go into manufacturing potentially?
Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point because our universities and educational systems, they’re also a business, right? And their customers are students. And they’ve gotta get students into seats. And if a program is unable to do that for whatever reason, then the college or the university can’t keep it active. You know, it has been a struggle in some, I would say most places, to have a full class of industrial engineers, or mechanical engineers, because there’s a lot of other majors that are out there. So, part of what we do at Festo that directly helps our customers, let’s just say it’s a university, is the systems that we provide are A, technologically at the forefront of manufacturing, so we have artificial intelligence, and machine learning, and augmented reality, and virtual reality all incorporated into this learning factory that we sell, so that’s number one.
Number two, we spend a lot of effort to make it as aesthetically pleasing to look at as possible, so when you see it it’s all stations, it’s steel, and smoked glass control cabinets, and there’s students that come in maybe for a tour of the university, when they see that, “I’m gonna be working on a piece of equipment like this?” That helps get those seats filled. And many of our customers, they will open up their labs in the summertime to much younger students. High school and middle school students. So, West Virginia University just did this the past summer. They held a series of summer camps and now they’re trying to attract, “Okay, who’s that 9 year old, 10 year old, 13 year old that maybe in two or three years might want to enroll at the program at WVU?” So, they’re very much looking at that as an outreach program, as well.
It’s interesting, you know?
Carman Pirie: That’s a great… You know, it’s great to think of that contribution, though, and how… Because we were just saying these black boxes on the factory, or on the highway you drive by, you don’t know what’s going on inside them. Of course, what a great way to expose people to that and to let people know that that’s an option. And of course, I think the universities that are doing the summer programming for the younger kids are to certainly be commended for that.
Jeff White: Yeah. I think one of the things that’s really interesting about it, and I say this as a dad of three high-school-aged and university-aged kids who are changing their minds frequently, and trying to figure out what it is that they want to do, we were talking a little bit ago about this idea of creating a funnel for sales of jobs, I guess, if you really want to be crass about it and diminish it, but you know, what do you think… Because kids see this stuff when they’re younger, and they get an impression of it, and maybe it sticks with them or maybe it doesn’t, but what do you think the industry can do kind of in that sort of phase between first awareness that, “Hey, there are these interesting jobs and they are high tech, and they’re pretty interesting, and they’re gonna pay well,” as a middle school kid to keep them engaged along that path, along that funnel, until they’re ready to choose a school and then ready to apply to a manufacturer? What should manufacturers be thinking about that in terms of keeping awareness going through those rather difficult teenage years?
Mike Nager: Yeah. It’s a good point. And most manufacturers are not super large, right? It’s small, medium size businesses with limited resources, and I appreciate that. Not every company is a Siemens, or a GE, or something of that scale. But you know, there are some simple things that can be done. First of all, you can take an active role with the educational community in your area, and that’s not going to require too much time of someone on your staff to engage with the high school, with the community college, or the universities that are in your area, to let them know that you exist, and you’re in the market to hire people, and also to provide assistance on what are they teaching. What skills are you looking for? Both hard skills and soft skills wise that would be very helpful. And that’s a direct avenue, so you don’t have to just kind of sit back and complain that the people knocking on your door don’t have these skills, but you can take an active role in helping shape those skills just by being active with the community.
The other thing that you can do in the U.S., I’m not sure if it’s in Canada, but in October is designated manufacturing week, and there’s actually a manufacturing day where the members are asked, the manufacturing members are asked to open their doors to the public to allow students, and parents, and teachers, and anyone else that’s interested to come into their facility and to actually see what it is that they’re doing inside there. And you know, that would not take much time and money. We’re talking about a single day. Maybe you could put together a nice little package of information or maybe some of those nice little marketing tools that are usually handed out at trade shows, baseball caps and things of that nature, and just let people know. This is what we’re doing in here. Yeah, we got some robots. They’re pretty cool. We have some AGVs. Oh, wow. Someone has to program those.
You know, you can’t underestimate that there’s gonna be a certain percentage of 10 year olds that see that and they’re gonna remember that for the next eight years, and show up and knock on your door. So, those are a couple ideas I would suggest.
Carman Pirie: And Mike, I think it’s important that you note that, that most manufacturers aren’t Siemens or GE, and they’re typically smaller, and they really… They may be smaller on a global scale but they’re very big in their local communities very often. And they can have outsized impact in those communities should they choose to. And should they choose to take your advice in that regard, and I think… You know, for the marketers listening, it seems to me that there’s a straighter connection or direct connection between what Mike’s talking about and the way that many midsized manufacturers articulate their value. How many times have we joked about the cliché that it’s our top quality people, the best service, and the best quality products, and we always laugh about it.
But, well, if we’re talking about competing through the best quality people, we have the best people, so okay, well, you don’t have to go too far from that to actually having a marketing campaign that’s basically all about recruitment but is a veiled way of creating awareness for the manufacturing organization writ large. You know what I mean? You could kill two birds with one stone here and these dots are closer to being connected than a lot of dots that marketers try to connect.
Jeff White: Yeah. It’s like, “Hey, marketers. Do you want to get a little more budget for something else?”
Carman Pirie: Right. Right. And sometimes I think when we talk about using marketing in the HR function, it’s like, “Okay. Well, then we’re gonna take a break from our work on attracting customers to go over here and try to attract talent.” But I actually think you could attract-
Jeff White: Both.
Carman Pirie: You could design a campaign to attract talent that’s really designed to attract customers is what I’m saying. Does that make sense?
Jeff White: Absolutely.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Not to ideate in the room, but just when you mentioned about those mid sized manufacturers, like that’s a real, interesting opportunity that’s open to them that I bet they’re not thinking about.
Jeff White: Yeah. It’s probably better than sponsoring a baseball team or a hockey team, too. Being more active. Probably do both, but it’s an interesting way to-
Carman Pirie: I do not want to be on the record as being against baseball. It’s America’s game.
Jeff White: Downright un-American.
Carman Pirie: Yeah.
Jeff White: Well, Mike, what’s next for you? You’ve been engaged in authoring some books and still kind of reaching out and working with schools to implement these skills programs and all of that, but where are you headed next?
Mike Nager: Yeah, so what I’m developing now is a series of workshops, so you know, aside from the books, taking the content that are in the books that introduce smart manufacturing to people that don’t have a direct experience with it. So, a series of in-person and online workshops. That’s kind of what’s on my agenda to develop right now, so I’ve had a few, did a few trial ones last year and they worked out pretty well. Sometimes the people that are in attendance for the workshop might be high school teachers that are teaching STEM, know a lot about science and math, but maybe not so much about manufacturing, so in a couple hours we kind of bring them right up to speed on what’s happening in the manufacturing industries.
Sometimes it’s elected officials that are trying to figure out where they’re going to put their funding for education and training, because there’s a huge push for it but it’s very unclear in their mind. Manufacturing is just one of those many industries that we had talked about a little bit earlier where government funding could be put towards that education, so the workshop’s designed to say, “Okay, this is manufacturing. We think it’s coming back big time and we think we have a lot of skills that we have to have our people acquire to make it a success, so let’s put our money there.
So, that’s what I’m working on right now is these workshops anywhere from four hours to maybe two days long. Something of that nature.
Carman Pirie: Mike, your commitment to attacking this challenge from almost seemingly-
Jeff White: Lots of angles.
Carman Pirie: … every possible angle is… It’s inspirational. I hope the people listening check Mike out. Find him online. We’ll link up his books, as well. You know, frankly I think the world of manufacturing could use several thousand Mikes here, so if-
Jeff White: Not that we’re trying to create competition for you, but I think you’d agree, it’s probably a good thing.
Carman Pirie: No, and I think there’s an awful lot to learn from just going and seeing what he’s been up to, and what he’s doing next, and the world of manufacturing will be better for it.
Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah. I’d appreciate anyone that’s interested. Reach out to me. I’m an open networker on LinkedIn and always happy to talk about the subject, so please do so.
Carman Pirie: It’s wonderful to have you on the show once again, good sir.
Mike Nager: Thank you.
Jeff White: Thanks a lot.
Mike Nager: Thanks.
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Mike NagerBusiness Development Manager
Mike Nager is the Business Development Manager for the Festo Didactic. For the last seven years, Mike has worked at Festo Didactic to develop training programs and equipment for colleges to use in educating the next generation of engineering and manufacturing professionals. Mike holds a Bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from the University of Scranton and worked in sales and marketing for most of his career. He was named a 2021 Top 10 Industry 4.0 Influencer by Onalytica and his latest book is “All About Smart Manufacturing” a rhyming picture book aimed to introduce 8-year-olds and their parents to the industry.