How manufacturing is adapting to changing demographics

As baby boomers head toward retirement and Generation Y enters the workforce, attempting to boost the competitive edge of the U.S. economy on the global stage, the transition between the two groups of workers is bringing some challenges. Differences in attitudes, skills and work styles — compounded by the fact that, in general, Generation Y is not attracted to the manufacturing industry — are contributing to a shortage of talented workers in this sector.   

According to “Developing & Engaging the Manufacturing Workforce,” a white paper released by the Manufacturing Excellence Share Group (MESG) of the Alliance for Innovation & Operational Excellence (AIOE), Reston, Va., consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers contend with hiring challenges that stretch from mechanical knowledge to generational differences.

AIOE developed the paper in conjunction with a Booz & Co. study and panel discussion in which more than a dozen manufacturing executives spoke about hiring, training, skill requirements and development, operational styles and new ways to uncover talent.

AIOE spoke with Dan Sileo, vice president of manufacturing with Sunny Delight Beverage Co., Cincinnati, one of the brand owners who participated in the study, to gain more insight into how this issue is impacting the beverage industry.

Q: How has the workforce shortage affected the beverage industry? What have been the challenges for Sunny Delight related to the workforce shortage?

Sileo: It is an interesting dichotomy when businesses are faced with a workforce shortage during a period of high unemployment. But it’s indicative of the problem that both we as a company and others in the beverage industry face: the difficulty of finding talented workers with a good aptitude and level of proficiency in the areas of leadership, mechanical skills and electrical skills.

Adding to this challenge is the amount of time it takes to find, hire and train an individual for a given position. The process can take months. At Sunny Delight, we put applicants through a rigorous selection process in order to find the right candidate. It begins with online screening and ends with an in-person interview that evaluates the leadership and technical aptitude or knowledge as well as the attitude of a candidate. It is important to point out that attitude, specifically, the disposition a person has to take initiative to learn and improve his skills, is essential. At Sunny Delight, we provide many opportunities for our employees to improve their skills. However, we expect our workers to show interest and passion for what they learn and apply those learnings every day.  

We believe the effort has been very successful as we see a large number of people who leave SunnyD return to us after working somewhere else. We call them “boomerangs.”

Q: What about the relationship between new (young) workers and their managers? Is there any mentorship program in place?

Sileo: On the plant floor, there isn’t a clear distinction between managers and workers. We follow Lean manufacturing principles, like the High Performance Work System, a legacy from [Procter & Gamble] (P&G) that allows autonomous teams to be able to run the business so we don’t need many managers. Our managers are expected to work on the floor, and, as a matter of fact, most people cannot tell the difference between our managers and technicians when they walk through our plants.

Q: What skills do you think the beverage processing workforce will have to have or acquire in the next five years? Do you think that our education system is teaching those skills to future workers?

Sileo: The beverage industry will have to boost productivity in the next few years to offset continued commodity increases, and technology is critical to driving productivity increases. That means workers must possess solid technological skills. They must understand how the different components of a machine act together as well as how to interface with and program computers. This is because the vast majority of equipment will be controlled and managed via computers.

One example we can look to are apprenticeship programs like those of Germany, where young people are trained through specific programs to work in a factory. It’s ingrained in young people that they can have interesting and rewarding careers in manufacturing, which, in turn, leads many to choose that education path. There are some programs [like this] beginning in the United States, and some larger companies can afford to do this in-house, but I believe the shortage of qualified manufacturing workers will continue until this becomes a bigger focus in our education system.

As I said, this type of training is not yet common-place in the United States, but it is critical in preparing our young and talented workers for both today’s and tomorrow’s manufacturing occupations. There are some training initiatives coming online, such as the certificate programs focused on mechatronics that PMMI developed in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Mechatronic Advisory Council; however, this is not enough. BI


PMMI and Charter Partner GMA launched The Alliance for Innovation & Operational Excellence in 2011. The alliance is a PMMI initiative that brings together operations executives from consumer product companies and their upstream suppliers to address key industry issues and establish best practices. Learn more at