Sweat Equity: Driving Employment and Marketing Through Tales from the Shop Floor

Episode 241

June 27, 2023

This week on the show we are talking to Stephanie Austin from Zentech Manufacturing. She has just begun a journey of illuminating the manufacturing world to those outside of it. Through talking to people on the manufacturing floor she is telling the story of modern manufacturing for prospective employees and customers alike. This is a cool approach and we are lucky enough to be a part of the conversation early.

Sweat Equity: Driving Employment and Marketing Through Tales from the Shop Floor 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, sir? 

Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. Looking forward to today’s conversation. 

Jeff White: Me as well. Had one of those instances of audio just being a bit of a bear early on, but hopefully we haven’t completely annoyed our guest and she’ll still-

Stephanie Austin: I’m good. 

Carman Pirie: If anybody’s ever pulled together a podcast recording more than once, or even once, you will have probably faced a plethora of audio difficulties. 

Jeff White: Innumerable challenges. 

Carman Pirie: And we’ve been at this a long time now, and you know what? We found a couple of new difficulties today, so that was fun. But nevertheless, we’ve already kind of heard from our guest in these opening moments, so let’s not hide her behind a veil any longer. Stephanie Austin, welcome to The Kula Ring. 

Stephanie Austin: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me. 

Carman Pirie: Awesome to have you on the show. 

Stephanie Austin: Yeah. I thought I was the only one who was listening to my ideas, but I’m glad you guys saw my ideas and thought they were worth telling everybody about, so that’s awesome. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Well, I think there’s a very interesting crossover in marketing these days with manufacturers that aligns quite tightly with the H.R. function, and I’m really stoked to get into some of what you’ve been seeing and what you’ve been doing. But before we do that, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and tell us about Zentech, where you’re the Director of Marketing? 

Stephanie Austin: Yeah, so Zentech Manufacturing, this is our 25th year. We started out in Baltimore, Maryland. We’re still here in Baltimore, Maryland, and we have added two sites in Dallas, Texas, and Bloomington, Illinois, which I don’t recommend adding two sites right before a pandemic. That was interesting. That happened in the beginning of 2020 and then everything shut down, so that was interesting. But our company manufactures electronics, specifically printed circuit boards, so we essentially procure the bare board, we procure the parts, and we use a technology called surface mount technology that basically is like a big robot that puts all the parts and assembles them on the boards much like you see in pretty much everything we interact with, and touch, and use has circuit boards in it. We specifically manufacture for the defense sector, so we manufacture for mission critical type electronics, so there’s a lot of certifications and rigorous testing that happens because it’s not like an iPhone that you can just throw away and build a new one. You can’t build a new F-35, so… That’s kind of what we do. 

We’re a small business. We have about 300 employees between the three sites. And yeah, getting parts has been interesting the past couple years. 

Carman Pirie: I bet. Well, look, what really kind of got us excited for today’s conversation was I think when we think about manufacturing marketing, very often… You know, sometimes I find manufacturers have to be almost shaken a little bit to the notion that they actually have to compete for business, like that you actually have to work for prospects, because a lot of manufacturers are used to just kind of that demand is just there, and that’s been a bit of a lightbulb moment. 

And I would say they face in some ways a similar dynamic when it comes to the H.R. function. Used to be working in manufacturing, very highly sought after. Getting an employee or hundreds of employees to show up at your door was just a matter of putting up a sign. And that’s not today. And I love that you’re bringing a marketing lens to the challenge of human resources in manufacturing. 

Stephanie Austin: I am. Yes. I figured what better way to find out why people are in the manufacturing career was to talk to the people themselves, so that’s kind of where I started. 

Carman Pirie: Well, take me into that. 

Stephanie Austin: So, there’s, as we know, a lot of workforce challenges in getting new talent in the door, and the younger generation seems to be… I think we’ve run into a lot of challenges. And so, I started a blog series called Manufacturing a Career On The Factory Floor, where I started with our own employees, hopefully I’ll expand, and talking to them about why they love their job, what makes it so great, because there’s kind of like when you talked to Mike Nager a few months ago, this kind of stigma with manufacturing about what it really is as a career. And I think that might be driving people away to pursue something else. That’s kind of where I started, is just talking to employees about, “Hey, why do you love it? What’s so great about it?” And in the hopes that we’ll spread awareness and get more people applying. 

Carman Pirie: So, do you see a lot of differences in the responses in terms of the why manufacturing? I guess were there any patterns in those responses or in those conversations? Or any surprises even? 

Stephanie Austin: There was some patterns. I noticed with the older generation, people who got into… And I’m speaking specifically for electronics in this example. But some of my older generation that’s on the floor working, they got into it in the ‘80s when this was all new, so it kind of… It was obvious that there were electronics everywhere because it was a new thing. If you look at today’s generation, and I have five kids of that generation, it’s all there at their fingertips. To them, it’s on the Walmart shelf, and they may not realize where it came from and the whole infrastructure of manufacturing that goes into all these products that they use. It’s just sort of always been there. 

And so, the older generations that work on the manufacturing floor, I think when they got into that field they had appreciation for it because it was so new, and now it’s sort of an everyday thing. If that makes any sense. 

Jeff White: I think it does. It’s just the kind of thing that… You know, I agree with you. I don’t think people understand or appreciate where things come from and how they’re made. But they also have a perception that manufacturing is gritty, and dirty, and not at all technical, and advanced, and robotic, and all of this kind of automation that’s going on there too. So, how are you communicating the new reality of manufacturing to a newer generation of potential workers? 

Stephanie Austin: Yeah. Absolutely. Just in my own small world, that’s a lot of the conversation in my blog posts. That’s what it centers around is like, “Tell me what your typical day looks like and what types of equipment you’re working with,” and things like that. Because really, it’s skilled labor, not manual labor, and I think a lot of the younger generation may have seen their parents or grandparents coming home from these dirty, long hour jobs, and that’s what they see manufacturing as. Versus what it really is is a big shiny floor of really expensive machines that requires technical talent. And it’s totally teachable, as well.

So, you can go to school for a lot of positions in manufacturing, but you don’t necessarily have to, so as one of my production supervisors said, there’s so many layers to manufacturing. So, if you don’t want to go to college and just want to start working right away, there’s that, or there’s other options, but that’s what my blog post has been centered around, is talking about what it really is and trying to spread that awareness. 

Carman Pirie: That’s really cool. What other tactics are we bringing to bear? I’m kind of curious if we’re turning a bit of an inbound approach to recruitment, or what else is at play? 

Stephanie Austin: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, if you guys are familiar with HubSpot, that’s our CRM that we use, and of course it’s centered around sales and customers, but you can take the whole inbound methodology that they have created and apply it to recruiting. So, inbound methodology is essentially that you’re a magnet, not a bullhorn. So, you want to draw people to you based on the content you’re putting out there, and the content isn’t talking at them. It’s providing information. Helpful information. So, like for example, this blog post is telling people what manufacturing is really like. It’s not talking at them. It’s just, “Hey, this is information that is useful to you.” 

And this generation too, they have whatever information at their fingertips that they want, so the more content you put out there that’s helpful to them, the more likely they are to come to you interested. I’ve just kind of taken that whole HubSpot inbound methodology and I’m trying to apply it to recruiting and seeing… It’s totally an experiment, but it makes sense in my head that it should apply. We’re gonna see how it goes. 

Carman Pirie: And how far along are we in this experiment? 

Stephanie Austin: Oh, just maybe a month. It just kind of… The catalyst was kind of the podcast you had with Mike Nager about selling manufacturing, like what can our company do for you, potential employee, to kind of that whole inbound methodology, and I kind of was like, “Oh, these kind of go together. Kind of the same idea.” So, I can’t tell you what the results are because I’m still doing it, but it can’t hurt anything to do it, that’s for sure. 

It’s probably gonna be a collective effort. I’m just one person in one company. But if we all kind of look at it that way, maybe some things will start to change. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think there’s power in educating about the realities of manufacturing careers, and I can imagine as this program expands, extending that kind of inbound, almost taking a bit of a lead nurturing approach, of course, to an employee nurturing. 

Stephanie Austin: Yes.

Carman Pirie: I can’t help but think that that kind of approach may help both identify and weed out good fits in advance of interview processes. I would think you could probably infuse the employee interviewing and onboarding process with a lot more kind of… Just insert a lot more value into that process by having this inbound flow kind of operating in parallel. So, I’m excited to see how that pans out. 

Stephanie Austin: Yeah. And within inbound methodology there’s also something called a buyer persona, if you’ve heard of it, where you’re kind of like, “What is my ideal customer?” So, you can ask the same question. What’s my ideal employee? What type of person are they? What types of things do they like to do? So, for example, a lot of what I got on the floor was, “Well, I’ve always liked doing puzzles, and putting things together, and figuring out how things work.” And if you know that about your employee persona, you can start to target your ads that way and the way you describe the job that way, because if you’re just putting a job description out there it’s very black and white. I don’t think people realize, “Oh, that is me. I do like puzzles. I like figuring out how things work. This could be a good fit for me.” 

If we start describing the industry or the job more like that, I think you could really draw people in. Again, it’s an experiment. I’m still gathering data. 

Carman Pirie: Well, I think anytime you tailor a message more customized to the recipient, you’re going to be better off. And I think that’s smart insight, that notion of appealing to a maker’s mindset and what is it that’s going to trigger somebody who is engaged by that kind of thing to see themselves in that job ad? That’s a layer of marketing that I’m not sure a lot of HR people maybe think about when they’re thinking about putting-

Stephanie Austin: I agree. 

Carman Pirie: Not to beat up on the HR folks. 

Stephanie Austin: No. Everybody has value to the task, right? So, HR people do things that I can’t do or think of, and so I’m just saying, “Hey, this is my hat that I’m wearing, and my perspective.” I’m just trying to sort of mold the way we present ourselves to people. But that was definitely, when I was talking to employees, it was definitely something that was like, “Well, I like to do this type of thing, like puzzles, so this job made sense to me.” But my favorite answer, it was an older gentleman. He’s a visual inspector, right? He’s looking for imperfections or oddities. And he’s like, “It’s just like Where’s Waldo. I’m looking for Waldo and when I find him I’m excited.” I’m like, “But you’re excited to find a defect, so I don’t know if that’s exciting or not.” 

But the more you talk to the people actually doing it, the more you understand what types of employees you want to find. 

Jeff White: I think that’s interesting and it’s a perfect segue into the question that I had, which is do you think that you’re going to need to target this differently with older generations versus millennials and gen Z types? I mean-

Stephanie Austin: Yeah. Definitely. You have to meet people where they are and communicate in a way that resonates with them. So, the way we may have said, “Hey, come join us in manufacturing,” in the ‘80s, it’s probably not gonna work now. It’s a matter of gathering data, essentially, and figuring out what resonates with people, and then tailoring the way you present your company in that way. So, it’s kind of you gotta think differently. 

Jeff White: What was the biggest challenge of beginning to work more directly with the HR team at Zentech? 

Stephanie Austin: That’s a good question. We’re a small company, so it’s a little easier because I said, “Hey, I have these ideas. What do you think? Is this something that you think could work?” And so, we’re actually still working towards that, like I have the blog series which they’re supporting, but as far as then going into how are our job descriptions written, how do we present our company, that’s all new territory for us. But I would say that management here has been open because they’re like, “Hey, never thought of it that way and we really need people.” But it’s still ongoing, so maybe in a few months I can tell you. But it does help being in a small company. Management’s more approachable because it’s not a big corporation where you need five signed forms to be able to access so-and-so or change policy. 

Right now, of course, this too, it doesn’t necessarily cost a ton of money to do this, right? I’m writing blog posts. So, that helped them be open, as well, because I’m not asking for $15,000 to change recruiting or anything like that. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think it always helps when you’re bringing a bit of sweat equity to the idea versus just asking for budget. There’s no question. 

Stephanie Austin: Well, that too, and that was the number one thing. I was like, “Listen, I have these ideas and I’m not telling you to go do them. I’m gonna do them. I’m saying I will do them. I want to work with you.” Because resource constraints are always part of it too, so I’m excited about where it’s going. Again, it’s still very much in process, so I’d be excited in a few months to tell you how it’s turning out because the ROI on this is not tomorrow by any means. So, it’s going to be hard to do. 

Carman Pirie: Can you give us a sense of the recruitment challenge? How many open positions do you typically have, or would you have currently? 

Stephanie Austin: Well, each site is a different size, but we probably have dozens of positions open, to be honest. I don’t know the exact statistics. And then part of it, too, is finding people that you wouldn’t have to train. 

Carman Pirie: Right. Of course. 

Stephanie Austin: And so, that’s a challenge too, because you could get people, but they might have to train them. So, the whole idea of training programs is something else I want to try and rethink, and it’s definitely a challenge because you know how when you buy a house you have the buyer’s market and the seller’s market? It’s very much an employee’s market, so to speak, where a young person has so many industries they can go into. Why choose manufacturing? Especially if you don’t know it well or believe the negative perception that’s out there versus, “Oh, well, IT doesn’t have that perception.” I’m hoping by changing the conversation about it, we’ll help people just see it as a viable thing to do. 

Jeff White: One thing I’ve noticed with a lot of the manufacturers we work with, especially those kind of around the size of Zentech, is that often when we get in and begin analyzing their web presence and looking at traffic sources is that unbeknownst to a lot of people in marketing, one of the largest sources of new people coming to the site are those looking for careers. So, I’m wondering if taking a focus to the content that you’re creating and writing things that are specifically for job seekers will actually be a net positive effect because people will be able to find more than just the job listings and kind of be able to see themselves in it, and perhaps be able to kind of carve off the job seekers and career side of web traffic versus the inbound marketing traffic around what Zentech actually makes. What do you think? 

Stephanie Austin: No, I agree. That’s what I’m hoping the blog is, is just like a catalyst to pushing people to seeing what jobs are open, and I’m even not being selfish in the sense of like, “Oh, we want to hire you. We want you.” But just to the whole manufacturing industry as a whole. But of course, in my blog posts, I do drive people towards our site, but then I also drive them towards other more generic sites, like CreatersWanted.org, which talks about different manufacturing careers and different stories of people who’ve been successful, or our own electronics industry. We have a whole website centered around different career profiles.

But the blog is just sort of a catalyst because the more content Google can find, the more traffic you can bring into your site. I was thinking too about we recently had a woman named Meaghan Ziemba on the show who’s the host of a podcast called Mavens of Manufacturing, and it’s about getting more women into manufacturing careers. Have you done any content or written any content specifically around bringing more diverse voices to manufacturing and kind of getting more women into it? 

Stephanie Austin: I haven’t yet, though it’s something I’ve definitely… It’s on my list. Although, we happen to have a lot of females on the manufacturing floor, which is great to see. But it’s definitely a slice of the pie that I would like to emphasize, for sure. The list of things I want to do are endless but I’m like, “Well, I have to start somewhere.” 

Carman Pirie: But the numbers of hours in the day is not endless, unfortunately. 

Stephanie Austin: No, and it’s not the only part of my job. But yeah, and the more I really enjoy talking to people like yourselves, because that gets the message out there quicker, and I would like to get to the point where I can go to other manufacturing sites and talk to their employees, and say, “Hey, what is it that you’re seeing?” And that in turn helps their business. 

But yeah, it’s a long and complex road, for sure. Like I said, it’s not like we’re gonna get 12 applicants tomorrow because of it, but you have to start somewhere. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think it’s an important step. Stephanie, I look forward to checking back in with you in 6, 9 months or so, and seeing some early traction here. My guess is that it’ll be a good new story. 

Stephanie Austin: I hope so. 

Carman Pirie: Thank you so much.. Yeah. No, thank you so much for sharing the opening phases with us. We look forward to seeing it progress. 

Stephanie Austin: I agree. I’m excited about it. I’m hoping to talk to more, even just our industry association about it, because workforce challenges as a whole is a huge conversation there, so I’m just hoping to get as many people that will listen. We’ll see where it goes.

Jeff White: Fantastic. Well, best of luck with it. 

Stephanie Austin: Thank you. I appreciate you guys talking to me and willing to do this, and even though it’s so new. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. No, it’s awesome. Thanks again. Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.

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Stephanie Headshot


Stephanie Austin

Director of Marketing, Zentech Manufacturing

Stephanie Austin is the Director of Marketing for Zentech Manufacturing, a military-focused small business in Baltimore, MD, Dallas, TX and Bloomington, IL that fabricates circuit card assemblies for the defense sector. She has twenty years’ experience in marketing, sales management and business development in the automotive and manufacturing industries. Joining Zentech in January 2017, she has developed a robust marketing and sales administration structure that actively supports the sales and quoting process. She is HubSpot certified and manages the HubSpot CRM and Sales Pipeline. She also maintains Zentech’s website, writes the content for the Zentech blog and has been an article contributor for the iConnect007 family of publications. Recently, Stephanie had the idea to approach the manufacturing workforce challenges through the lens of marketing. Through a series of blog posts, Manufacturing a Career on the Factory Floor, she interviews Zentech employees about why they love their career in manufacturing, intending to dissipate some of the negative perceptions people have of manufacturing jobs, and encourage young people to consider manufacturing as a viable career path.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

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Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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