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Millennials: How Manufacturers are Training the Next Generation

November December 2017

Millennials recently surpassed Generation Xers as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force (1). Defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as those born between 1982 and 2000, millennials came of age in a time of great technological change and economic uncertainty. It is no surprise that workplace survey after workplace survey show this generation seeks specific requirements in order to stay fulfilled at their jobs. Flexibility in when and where they work. Greater collaboration among colleagues. Ability to integrate technology into their roles. And companies that fail to deliver these requirements face the ever-present threat of their millennial employees seeking greener pastures, as they are more likely to switch jobs than other generations (2). This is not strictly a U.S.-only challenge for employers either; although fewer in number, European millennials also seek flexibility and emphasis on technology yet also remain open to other employment opportunities (3).

While open floor plans, generous work-from-home opportunities and extensive reliance on personal mobile devices during the workday make sense at a Silicon Valley startup or a creative marketing firm, such millennial-centered perks may not be as feasible for a GMP environment. Nevertheless, pharmaceutical manufacturers are working to refine their training and professional development programs to not only attract millennials but retain them.

Some in the industry feel that millennials could have used more preparation within their university programs before entering the GMP workforce.

“Unfortunately, there is still a big experiential gap between university preparation and industrial reality,” said Manuel Belmonte, Learning and Development Manager, Patheon. He specifically cited education around sterile manufacturing of injectables as particularly lacking.

Milton Ruiz, Senior Manager, Quality Management Systems, Portola Pharmaceuticals, agreed that standard university science programs do not cover GMP adequately.

“When it comes to the process of sterilization, they teach you about the science behind it, but when it comes to hands-on and what that looks like day-to-day, I don’t think they do an effective job of setting people up.”

“I think the schools do a pretty good job training them technically on the science of what is there. But I don’t think they do a very good job of preparing them to be in a regulated environment,” concurred Timothy Gillum, PhD, Director, Quality Training, Baxter.

Of the educational background of Millennial staff, his colleague, Dawn Nixon, Director, Business, Human Resources, Baxter, said, “Sometimes I think they lack the practical application of what it is to work in that type of environment. We know that collaboration is key for millennials. They like to be able to work on the go. They like to integrate technology into what they’re doing. And a lot of that presents challenges to how you really interact in a sterile manufacturing environment.”

In fact, Gillum pointed out that, as a traditional manufacturer, he thinks GMP should even be touched on at the high school level as many of their operators have only a high school education.

At the same time, some university programs are starting to address the unique requirements of sterile manufacturing. A few even offer programs in it. Ruiz has seen accredited university programs in vial manufacturing that teach what he terms the “sterile envelope” and how to work within a biotechnology environment. Maik Jornitz, CEO, G-Con Manufacturing, has also seen changes at the university level.

“Nowadays, I see more upcoming training courses and academic initiatives to prepare the next generation of manufacturing personnel. Within universities, there are also a multitude of new therapies being generated, which means that process technologies are utilized and trained,” he explained.

Firms Explore New Training Frontiers

Regardless of the quality of university programs in covering sterile manufacturing, companies are modifying their training programs to address how millennials prefer to learn new information. Baxter is embarking on an overhaul of its training programs to address the needs of millennials on both the floor and in the lab.

“We really are trying to bring our learning programs into the current technology age, not only to appeal to millennial employees but also to the larger global employee population,” Nixon said, adding, “even broader than just our learning programs, we are starting to incorporate more collaboration tools, bringing mentoring, learning and experience to employees where they need to get it and where they are working.”

And those on the manufacturing floor are not being left out.

“We are moving more to microlearning,” Gillum said. “Microlearning” refers to breaking up on-the-job training into bite-size bits of information. For example, instead of holding a two- or three-hour session, shift meetings might include five- to 15-minute segments of hand-based training activities. He compared it to paying for something in monthly installments as opposed to a one-time lump sum payment. And millennials do not want a lump sum approach to training.

The challenge for Baxter, he explained further, is modifying the training to suit both those in the lab and staff on the floor. A line operator filling IV bags does not have the same access to a workstation with an online training program as a manager in the microbiology lab. The company is considering placing a tablet-based station on the manufacturing floor for operators to access training as the need arises.

Other companies are also looking at the microlearning approach. Biotech firm Portola Pharmaceuticals outsources its manufacturing. This has exposed Ruiz to how other companies are modifying their training as Millennials come on board.

“The challenge from my experience was when you had these baby boomers or Gen Xers who were kind of expecting training to be very straight-forward and ‘Here is what I am going to tell you’ versus the millennials that liked constant change,” he said. He is now seeing more companies offering training programs that “go in the middle” by offering moderately lengthy training with more bite-size pieces.

“I firmly believe in collaborative training and not separate training blocks for just target groups. That would create separation instead of unity and interactive experience exchange,” Jornitz said, further explaining that training should be interesting, fun and hands-on.

Training should also be customized for each audience, said Belmonte. He also wants to see collaborative training that involves both millennials and more experienced staff.

“We cannot waste the curiosity and creativity of millennials but, on the other hand, we cannot waste the experience of [experienced personnel],” he explained. “In this sense, workshops could help by enabling multiple generations of staff to share knowledge and ideas.”

Additionally, “paper has to be eliminated as much as possible,” as this represents the older way of documenting training, Belmonte explained.

Building Ties Across Generations

In addition to new types of training, companies are also building up their mentoring programs. Baxter offers a variety of mentoring programs, including what Nixon refers to as an “open source” program where personnel can sign up to be paired informally with a mentor. Both parties work together to manage the relationship, suiting it to their unique needs. The manufacturing, operations and quality groups offer a rotational program that provides mentoring in different aspects, so that participants can get a taste of other roles.

Ruiz also sees mentorship as playing a vital role in getting millennial employees up to speed.

“Everybody has to feel like they bring something of value. If you have an older generation, you want them to be mentors to help teach the intangibles to the millennials,” he said. Millennials may have “tactical skills” but lack what he calls “intangible skills.” These are the communication and strategic-thinking skills necessary for long-term planning.

“I believe that having millennials be mentored, guided and taught on the intangibles of being successful is the way to get both [demographic groups] to be intergenerational. And as a result, I believe these millennials will also teach some of the older workers some new skills,” Ruiz said.

Belmonte views mentorship as a recipe with the ingredients of “respect, trust, synergy and success.”

“The first two ingredients serve as the basis of good collaboration within different generations, while the third leads to the fourth,” he explained.

Mentoring also allows for millennial staff to build better ties with staff from earlier generations.

“Both have to come together to learn from each other, to improve together and create an environment of collaboration and advancement,” emphasized Jornitz. “In instances one sees ‘experience contempt,’ which may not allow for new ideas, even in training. I believe we need to learn from each other to constantly improve.”

Mentoring is also another way for companies to retain millennials. Often labelled “job hoppers,” this generation has no qualms about acting on the urge to seek better opportunities (2). Belmonte attributes this to the fact that many started their careers in the midst of a global financial crisis with little to no memory of the prosperity of the 1980s and late 1990s. Ruiz also pointed out that he is seeing more companies on the manufacturing side hiring contract staff for fixed terms (usually three years), with no expectation that employees will stay on full time.

Many companies, however, still seek employees looking for long-term tenure. Baxter is moving away from a performance rating system to one that encourages more frequent check-ins. The company is also in the beginning stages of implementing a LinkedIn-type internal platform that allows personnel to provide feedback and give recommendations for staff. Additionally, the company is also appealing to millennials’ altruistic side by providing opportunities for staff to give back to the community. The company hopes these steps will encourage millennial staff to stay on with the company and grow their careers within.

Millennials Embrace Industry 4.0

Just as training is becoming more high tech, so too are manufacturing processes. Although pharma has lagged behind other industries when it comes to implementing Industry 4.0 or Factory-of-the-Future technologies, involving the digitization and automation of manufacturing, the industry is slowly evolving in this space. And this is an area where millennials can truly shine.

Belmonte’s company, Patheon, is currently investing in Industry 4.0 projects, and even has millennials involved as project leaders. When it comes to millennials and Industry 4.0, he said, “It’s the best current combination you can choose.”

Ruiz even sees Industry 4.0 as a strength for the millennial generation.

“I see them in the background, creating the automation and working in that area,” he said. “That is where I see more millennials contributing, being part of manufacturing on that end as it becomes more and more automated.”

Industry 4.0 is one of the areas where millennials’ ability to adapt to constant change will allow this generation of manufacturing staff to leave its mark. It also doesn’t hurt to remember that millennials will one day be the mentors of succeeding generations.

“Eventually, millennials will start hitting that age where they’re 45 or 50 years old,” Ruiz said. “Then a whole new generation comes in, and they’re inexperienced with intangibles and the cycle just keeps on going on.”


  1. Fry, R. “Millennials surpass Gen Xers as the largest generation in U.S. labor force.” Pew Research Center. (May 11, 2015)
  2. Adkins, A. "Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation." Gallup News. (May 12, 2016)
  3. Eckert, G. and Deal, J. “A European Perspective on Millennials.” (June 8, 2012)

About the Experts

Manuel BelmonteFollowing years of experience in manufacturing, quality and operational excellence, Manuel Belmonte is the Learning and Development Manager of the Patheon Ferentino site (now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific).

Milton RuizMilton Ruiz has 20 years of experience in the pharma/biotech industries with a career focus on learning and development within a GxP environment. He has worked for Portola, Gilead Sciences and Genentech.

Timothy GillumTimothy Gillum, PhD, has worked both in academic and business environments for more than 20 years with a focus on learning and change management within regulated environments.

Dawn NixonDawn Nixon has 15 years of global human resources experience partnering with business leaders across multiple industries, competencies and functions to transform their organizations and change the way they operate.

Maik JornitzMaik Jornitz is a distinguished technical expert with close to 30 years of experience in bioprocesses, especially sterilizing grade filtration and single-use technologies, including regulatory requirements, integrity testing, systems design and optimization.