3M Strategy Attracts Tech Savvy Talent to Manufacturing

Sean Mullan at 3M explains how the company works with local schools and colleges to attract tech focused students to careers in modern manufacturing.

“Work helps us feel better about ourselves — it gives us pride and purpose in life.”

Recruiting for manufacturing jobs is an uphill battle. For some, manufacturing means dirty, dangerous, and repetitive work. Others worry that manufacturing jobs will be outsourced or automated. Younger workers, who are hyper connected to the digital world, think manufacturing is old-fashioned and outdated. Whatever the reason, there is a stigma attached to manufacturing jobs that makes it hard to fill open positions. But the stigma just isn’t true.

Automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the internet of things are revolutionizing industrial production. Many jobs that are repetitive, unsafe, or physically difficult have been eliminated by technology, or will be soon. What’s left are jobs with higher pay and benefits and opportunities for promotion and work with modern, complex technology. Many of these jobs — and there are lots of them — don’t require a four-year college degree, but they do require creative thought and continuous learning.

Sean Mullan, leader of 3M’s Manufacturing and Academic Partnership (MAP) program, is fighting to change perceptions about manufacturing, while also helping 3M prepare for the changing career landscape. 3M is one of the world’s largest manufacturing companies with more than 91,000 employees in 205 plants in 70 countries. Its products range from Scotch Tape and Scotch-Brite cleaning supplies for consumers to electronics and medical devices for businesses.

Finding talent for manufacturing careers is a strategic imperative for 3M. The company’s efforts in workforce planning offer a concrete example of how employers are preparing for the future of work by putting talent first.

Carey O’Connor, senior strategist at JFF, recently sat down with Mullan to find out how he is changing people’s hearts and minds about manufacturing jobs and why this work is so important to him.

CO: To start us off, what exactly is 3M’s MAP program?

Mullan: The 3M Manufacturing and Academic Partnership program is part of 3M’s education initiative advancing equity in STEM and skill trades through education programs. Our program focuses on developing deep community partnerships between our manufacturing plants and their local high schools and technical colleges. We do this by helping the schools set up programs to train students and teachers on careers in mechatronics and other industrial trade careers. Our partnership can take many forms, depending on the needs of the school and community.

Can you give us an example?

A few years ago, 3M partnered with Alexandria Technical and Community College and Hutchinson Public Schools to develop a mechatronic certification program. We helped the schools design their curriculum, secure classroom equipment, and train teachers on manufacturing processes. Our local plant in Hutchinson continues to work with the schools and teachers. They provide subject matter expertise in the classroom, host plant tours, and serve as mentors to students and teachers. 3M also provides scholarships to help local students pay for the costs of college and has an annual Educator Summit offering professional development for teachers.

Connecting our plant team with local schools and the community is an essential part of 3M’s MAP project. We have to understand what the local needs are and build from there. The goal is to create an ongoing partnership between our plant teams and their local schools so we can help generate interest in, and knowledge about, manufacturing and industrial production.

Wow. That’s incredible.

We’re really proud of what we’ve done so far, and we’re just getting started. Already, MAP has established 13 partnerships with 11 technical colleges, 35 high schools and three junior high schools. Over 2,500 students have participated in the program, many on a reduced or free school lunch program. 44 students have received scholarships for associate degrees in mechatronics and advanced manufacturing. Our total program investment is over $2.5 million, with more planned. And, what I am most proud of, we have hired many of the graduates. I love seeing them working at our plant.

Rewind a second. In words I can understand, what’s mechatronics?

People think manufacturing is old-fashioned and not high-tech, which is just not true. Most manufacturing jobs require at least some knowledge of engineering, computers, robotics, nanotechnology, and electromechanical equipment, which is where mechatronics comes in.

Mechatronics is a new field of study that provides a working knowledge of mechanics, electronics, computers, telecommunications, robotics, and electromechanical devices. Mechatronics experts use this broad knowledge to increase the reliability, precision, and operating efficiency of complex machine systems.

That sounds like complex, challenging work. How much do these types of jobs pay?

These are really good jobs. An entry-level reliability and maintenance specialist at a U.S. 3M plant earns around $26-$28 an hour plus employee benefits. The pay and benefits are well above a living wage, especially in the communities where our plants are located. And there are promotion opportunities once you have been in your job for a while. Part of the MAP program is creating career pathways for advancement from these entry-level positions.

You light up when you talk about this. Why is this work important to you?

I want to help people — particularly those who may not have grown up with much — find rewarding, well-paid jobs in their community. Work is so important for all of us.

Work helps us feel better about ourselves — it gives us pride and purpose in life.

If we can’t meet our basic needs, how can we be a good member of our community, a good spouse, or father or mother?

Manufacturing has provided a great career and life for me and my family. I want others to have that opportunity.

You spent most of your working career in different manufacturing jobs. Did you always know you wanted an industrial career?

Not at all! I come from a military family.

I started working when I was 14. After high school, like many of my peers, I went to a four-year university and worked nights. After a dispute with a professor over a grade, I dropped out of college and joined the Navy, only 15 credits short from graduation. While in the service on a nuclear submarine, I finished my college degree and started a family. I began my manufacturing career when I left the Navy and have been in different jobs within the manufacturing industry since then.

You have a great job at 3M with such a rewarding mission. What’s the best part?

Seeing experienced, lifelong manufacturing employees get excited about connecting with students and teaching the next generation about their work. There’s nothing like it.

Do you have any advice for another corporate leader who might be thinking of starting a similar program at their company?

As my wife always says, “To be successful, you have to be nice, work hard, and be good at what you do.” Keep it simple and focus on what’s important.

The Changemakers series is produced as part of JFF’s Corporate Action Platform, which features stories of Impact Employers. Visit JFF.org for more information about Impact Employers. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org