At age 23, Matthew Kemmerer is one of the youngest employees at MC Assembly, a Melbourne Florida based leading electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider. Kemmerer, who works as a test engineer, is one of a number of millennial workers entering the manufacturing industry at MC Assembly.

“Until recently the other youngest person in our department was over twice my age,” Kemmerer said. “I have colleagues who say ‘Wow, I have a truck that’s older then you.’”

Currently, 87 percent of MC Assembly’s workforce is over the age of 35. U.S. Department of Labor Statistics estimate that there has been a significant drop in employees under 35 in the manufacturing industry nationwide. Since 1994 the number has dropped from 7.8 million under 35 aged workers to 4.5 million in 2016.

“The data we have suggests a definite pattern of decline for younger workers in the manufacturing industry over the last 22 years,” said James Borbely, a Department of Labor Economist. “The time period between 1994 and 2005 shows the most dramatic a much drop in workers under the age of 35 years old from 39 percent to 29 percent.”

Some would attribute this drop partially to automation technology and many manufacturing operations being moved overseas. However, despite a slight drop during the recession in 2010, the level of younger workers in manufacturing has held stable since the mid 2000s.

“In contrast, the time period between 2005 to 2016 saw little change in younger worker (under 35) employment patterns as a percentage,” Borbely said.

Kemmerer joined MC Assembly as a technical intern during his freshman year at Florida Institute of Technology and has stuck with manufacturing ever since.

“I applied, interviewed and received a position, not knowing much about manufacturing,” he said. “I had that antiquated concept of people in giant rooms just kind of hand stitching things together.”

Now as a test engineer, he says he genuinely enjoys his work. “I find it a lot better than some of my colleagues who sit at a desk for 10-12 hours a day running simulations, where as I get to actually bring a product to life,” he said.

Brandon Boyer, 25, works as a machine operator for MC Assembly. He started his career in manufacturing in 2009 as a slide line operator and X-ray technician for Lighting Science.

“You hear a lot of the older people talking about how it [the manufacturing industry] has changed throughout the years. It’s interesting,” Boyer said.

As a younger worker, Boyer says what appeals to him is the diversity of occupational opportunities offered in the manufacturing industry from engineer to machine operator to management. Another aspect that appeals to Boyer is the company’s diverse cultural makeup and friendly workplace environment.

“We’ve got good people here,” Boyer said. “We all get along. It’s very diverse, we’ve got all cultures and all age ranges.”

Karleen Tighe, 24, is another millennial-aged worker who was not specifically interested in manufacturing work when she started, but has grown to love what she does and MC Assembly.

“At first, nothing specifically appealed to me in manufacturing other than having employment and a job environment that I like,” she said. “But I can say I’ve grown to like manufacturing. I love my company, that’s why I’ve been here for nearly five years. I guess they like me, too.”

The younger workers agree that they’ve seen a significant gap in interest in manufacturing as a career option among millennial aged workers.

“I see a lot of turns and flops with the younger crowd, more of the older people stay,” Tighe said.

“I feel that manufacturing kind of fell off with the younger generation because they’re expanding more to computer type jobs and stuff like that,” Boyer said.

Many in the manufacturing industry believe that it’s critical for manufacturing companies to be able to attract younger workers if it is to survive as an industry in the United States.

MC Assembly’s Human Resources Director Brian Kingston, a millennial himself, says it is challenging to recruit millennial-aged workers in the manufacturing industry. Kingston says one reason is that manufacturing has gained a poor and outdated public perception based largely on the industry’s history.

However, Kingston says times and technology have advanced enormously and today’s manufacturing facilities are light years ahead of the common perception picture of the industry in terms of technology, diversity, safety and worker involvement.

“There’s been this mentality that in manufacturing there is no autonomy, that it’s challenging work, that there’s no opportunity for individualism,” Kingston said. “I think here at MC Assembly that’s what makes us special. The opportunity to listen to ideas and employees’ thoughts on how things should or should not be done really gives us an upper hand in manufacturing.”

In addition to giving employees a strong voice in the company, MC Assembly also offers additional incentives to attract and retain younger workers including tuition reimbursement and on-the-job training programs. The company also has developed a robust internship program and hosts facility tours for manufacturing, engineering and design students. MC Assembly’s leadership believes that investing time and effort in programs like these will also educate students about the current state and importance of manufacturing.

“We’ve been here a long time but we’re not going to be here forever,” said MC Assembly CEO George Moore. “It’s very important that there’s another generation of people who are familiar with manufacturing, both with the academics of it and the technology of it but also the real life experience of it if we’re going to remain strong as a manufacturing economy.”

As for broadening the appeal of manufacturing as a realistic career option for younger aged workers, Kemmerer believes that one solution is to spotlight the “hands-on” creation aspect of manufacturing work to appeal to people like himself, who prefer to build a product in reality then design it in a virtual computer simulation.

“Taking the concept off of the page and into the real world,” Kemmerer said.

Kemmerer also says that the incorporation of modern technology in manufacturing processes makes this the perfect time to work in the manufacturing industry; a very far leap from the antiquated image of manufacturing he had when he first signed up to be a manufacturing technology intern in college.

“The future is now with manufacturing,” said Kemmerer. “We have to become better and more efficient at what we do and technology will be the push behind that. For example, IT systems, test systems, automated manufacturing systems. There’s still more for us to accomplish.”