Attracting Gen Z to Advanced Manufacturing Careers in the Defense Sector

In the ever-evolving landscape of advanced manufacturing, the Department of Defense (DoD) Manufacturing Technology (i.e., ManTech) enterprise holds a critical position of spurring technical advancements to ensure global security. As we journey into the Third Wave and beyond, it becomes paramount to equip the next generation, particularly Generation Z, with the tools and education necessary to provide the defense manufacturing infrastructure with the resources required to remain globally competitive. Helping Gen Z find purpose in DoD advanced manufacturing requires leaders to take targeted, thoughtful actions that emphasize partnership and respond to a rapidly evolving need for skills.

Embracing Technological Advancements in Advanced Manufacturing

Imagine a world where defense manufacturing embraces cutting-edge technologies. Generation Z, the digital natives of our time, naturally gravitates toward technology. These future leaders are poised to unlock the true potential of advanced manufacturing, utilizing transformative technologies such as additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing), nanotechnology, robotics, and advanced materials. With their innate affinity for innovation, it is our duty to empower them with comprehensive education and training.

Four key actions can catalyze DoD ManTech’s ability to benefit from Gen Z’s promise:

1. Cultivate Cross-Disciplinary Education

Gen Z possesses a diverse range of skills and interests. They are not confined to a single field but embrace the power of interdisciplinary thinking. Imagine a world where they receive a holistic education that combines technical proficiency with critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Through collaborations with academia, we can foster an environment that nurtures this cross-disciplinary mindset. By working closely with universities and research institutions, defense industries can contribute to curriculum development, establish research partnerships, and provide mentorship opportunities. These stories of collaboration will empower Gen Z with a well-rounded education and expose them to real-world challenges in advanced manufacturing.

2. Partner with Industry for ManTech Success

Success is rarely achieved in isolation. Collaboration lies at the heart of progress. Picture a world where educational institutions, industry leaders, and government entities unite in their quest for advanced manufacturing excellence. Together, they build strong partnerships through platforms like DoD ManTech and the Manufacturing Innovation Institutes. These partnerships bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical industry requirements. By actively engaging with these entities, defense industries tap into a wealth of resources, expertise, and funding opportunities. Gen Z benefits from industry-driven initiatives, access to state-of-the-art facilities, and exposure to best practices. These inspiring collaborations lay the foundation for a globally competitive advanced manufacturing workforce.

3. Cultivate Continuous Learning and Adaptability 

The only constant in advanced manufacturing is change. The rapid pace of technological advancements demands a mindset of continuous learning and adaptability. Let us envision a world where Gen Z embraces the journey of lifelong learning. Through training programs, apprenticeships, and certifications, supported by the existing structures, they acquire the skills needed to stay ahead of the curve. Moreover, state and local communities contribute by fostering innovation ecosystems, organizing industry events, and promoting collaboration between educational institutions and defense manufacturing companies. These stories of dedication and growth inspire Gen Z to constantly push boundaries and drive innovation in advanced manufacturing.

4. Change Perceptions and Bridge the Skills Gap 

In the realm of advanced manufacturing, there exists a pressing need to change the perception of manufacturing jobs among the next generation. Traditional stereotypes and misconceptions often overshadow the rewarding and high-tech nature of these careers. It is essential to highlight the exciting opportunities and technological advancements present in modern manufacturing. Furthermore, we must address the skills gap that hampers the industry’s growth. Gen Z, with their diverse interests and skill sets, presents an opportunity to bridge this gap. By emphasizing skilled credentialing and alternative pathways, we can offer avenues to high-paying advanced manufacturing careers without solely relying on a university degree. Through vocational training programs, apprenticeships, and specialized certifications, Gen Z can acquire the specific skills demanded by the industry. Shifting the perception of manufacturing jobs and embracing skilled credentialing will empower Gen Z to pursue fulfilling and prosperous careers in advanced manufacturing, contributing to the defense industry’s competitiveness.

How the Air Force Research Lab is Preparing for Gen Z

Since 2021, Toffler Associates has partnered with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to implement their Digital Transformation Strategy by delivering human capital focused support in the areas of talent development, talent management, and workforce planning. Part of our talent development effort is tapping into the potential of Gen Z talent to help shape the world of defense manufacturing. Revisiting and analyzing the Lab’s university partnerships and upskilling initiatives with a future of work lens has progressed the Lab’s ability to attract, hire, and retain the staff who possess or can develop these in-demand skills.

Fully Leveraging Strategic University Partnerships

Our team’s focus includes developing a digital talent pipeline through strategic university partnerships. While AFRL maintains a pipeline of university partners, our work has helped identify and connect AFRL to universities offering degree programs related to high-priority digital skill areas​. Critically, our analysis also identified “standout” programs with which AFRL can expand partnerships while also tapping into DEIA associations that increase the Lab’s population of digital skills and overall diversity. As part of this program, Toffler has helped identify on-the-job training and shadowing opportunities for interns to expand digital skill sets and allow digital knowledge sharing between AFRL and its intern cohorts. By bridging the gap between academia and industry, these strategic alliances pave the way for emerging digital talent to discover opportunities in advanced manufacturing while simultaneously dispelling myths and misconceptions Gen Z sometimes holds about working in manufacturing.

Instituting Digital Badging to Encourage Continuous Learning

In addition to revisiting and revising AFRL’s training catalog to incorporate the need for digital skills, AFRL wants to change how it views and tracks workforce training to better keep up with a rapidly evolving digital skills marketplace with changing industry trends and demands. Toffler is also helping institute modernized training through the exploration of digital badging. Digital badging not only offers a reliable way to validate skills and knowledge, but also provides an invaluable tool to recognize and promote the diverse skills inherently possessed by Generation Z (and, for that matter, the larger workforce). While digital badging emphasizes practical skills that can be applied immediately in the workplace, it also speaks to AFRL’s commitment to continuous learning, a Gen Z workforce priority.

Making the Workplace Work for Gen Z Benefits DoD ManTech

Let us unlock the untapped potential of Generation Z. By arming them with the necessary tools, interdisciplinary education, collaborative industry partnerships, and a commitment to continuous learning, we ensure that they are well-prepared to tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities presented by advanced manufacturing. Together, we can weave a tapestry of inspiring stories, where innovation, collaboration, and the spirit of exploration pave the path to a safer and technologically advanced world for generations to come.

Prepare your workforce for digital transformation

Toffler Associates brings our understanding of the future of work to ensure the success of your agency’s digital transformation. To learn more about how we can help your organization, contact us.

About the Authors

Elise Skipper Photo

Elise Skipper

Driven by a passion for effective storytelling, Elise provides future proof solutions with a resolute focus on fostering exceptional communication within strategic programming across a variety of federal and commercial industries. She joined Toffler Associates in the Spring of 2022 as an Associate to engage across the Department of Defense to help strength the future resiliency of the Warfighter.

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