When Maria Welborne first interviewed with Ford Motor Co., she was pleasantly surprised by what she saw on her tour of the company's plastics plant in Milan, Mich. "My vision of a factory was not pleasant," says Welborne. "I thought it would be dark, greasy, and not a nice place to work." Ford's Milan plant changed her mind. "There was a lot of automation, it was clean and bright, and everyone was enthusiastic," says Welborne. She ended up spending seven years at Ford, where she was accepted into the company's Manufacturing Leadership Program. Last year, after Welborne earned her master of management in manufacturing degree from Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., she interviewed with consulting firms as well as manufacturers. Ultimately, she decided to stay in industry, pointing to the opportunities it offers workers to take ownership of projects and see them through. She's now manager of planning and business development in the hydraulics semiconductor equipment and specialty controls division of Cleveland-based Eaton Corp. Welborne's experience shows the roles that image and reality play in attracting bright, talented men and women to manufacturing companies. The work itself -- the day-to-day excitement of making something and getting it out the door -- is perhaps the biggest draw. "I looked at manufacturing because that's where the action is. You take a design and put it to the test," says Patrick Shanahan, 767-400 program manager for Boeing Co., and a graduate of the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge. Many young people in manufacturing speak of their career choice in terms more typical of missionary work. "I don't know if noble is the right word, but it feels good to see a product you worked on at the end of the day," says Mike Fascetti, a project manager and engineer with Eaton Corp.'s implant systems division, Beverly, Mass. Fascetti earned a master of manufacturing systems engineering degree from Stanford University. The career choices of Welborne, Shanahan, and Fascetti run counter to media-fed, negative perceptions of industry. Nevertheless, manufacturing companies have their work cut out for them in the highly competitive market for business talent. While all employees are important, attracting the stars is critical. "The best talent, those who want to be on the fast track -- eventually those are the people who will drive your company forward," says James Hatch, a New York-based executive vice president with Compensation Resource Group Inc., an executive compensation and benefits consulting firm. Hatch coauthored Delivering on the Promise: How to Attract, Manage and Retail Human Capital (1998, Free Press) while he was global managing partner of Arthur Andersen's people strategy practice. Often it is an outdated image of manufacturing as dirty, dingy factories that turns off young job candidates. "There's the image of 'grease and gears' where things move slowly and are hierarchical . . . ," says Maury Hanigan, president and CEO of Hanigan Consulting Group, a New York-based human-resource consulting firm. Industry bears some responsibility for that image, says Phyllis Eisen, executive director of the National Assn. of Manufacturers' Center for Workforce Success, Washington. "Manufacturers have not been good at self-promotion," says Eisen. "Until [students] find out that this is not your daddy's plant, they'll think that they'll get dirt under their fingernails and have a blue-collar, second-class job." Image isn't the only problem, however. Less sophisticated recruiting tactics, slower career paths, and compensation levels that lag behind other industries dampen enthusiasm for manufacturing among top students, especially at the graduate level, say both recruits and recruiters. To offer an attractive career choice, manufacturers will have to transform their approaches to hiring and keeping employees with the same intensity that they mustered to improve quality in the early 1980s, says Sunny Bates, president and CEO of Sunny Bates Associates, New York. That effort must start with recruiting. While not every fast-tracker comes armed with an advanced degree from a top business school, recruiting effectively at these institutions is important. To attract the best and brightest, leading companies bring senior management to campus, market themselves, and follow up quickly, says Donald Rosenfield, director of the Leaders for Manufacturing Fellows Program at MIT. Getting line managers to conduct campus interviews, rather than relying solely on human-resource specialists, is another important recruiting strategy. It shows a commitment to the hiring effort, and allows the company to better respond to fast-track students who will ask in-depth, pointed questions about job scope and responsibilities. The interest that a company engineer showed toward her when she was still a student was one of the reasons why Patricia Poppe joined General Motors Corp. "She brought me to Detroit, showed me around, and [introduced me to] people at the company," says Poppe. Without that personal touch, Poppe likely would have headed to the West Coast for a career in high-tech. Now body shop area manager at GM's Lordstown, Ohio plant, Poppe oversees 600 people and is one of the youngest managers at that level within the corporation. Changing perceptions To give students a better idea of what a career in manufacturing entails, companies are starting to bring them into their facilities. Ford recently invited 350 top M.B.A. students from around the world to spend an extended weekend at the company's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. The students spent three days in sessions with senior managers, discussing issues such as e-commerce, technology, the supply chain, and brand management. The result? Surveys revealed a significant change in students' perceptions of Ford, the complexity of the business, technology in the industry, and the opportunities afforded new recruits, says Nancy Gioia, Stanford graduate and chief program engineer for the automaker's Thunderbird program, based in Dearborn. Ford extended about 100 job offers on the spot, some of which have been accepted. Once on the job, fast-trackers expect advancement opportunities that match their abilities and experience, rather than schedules that emphasize seniority. Their impatience reflects the fact that they have many other opportunities available to them, as well as the increasing emphasis on employees taking charge of their careers. Manufacturing companies' leadership-development programs are designed to meet these expectations by offering a variety of job experiences. Joy Lin, an engineering graduate of Purdue University, says such a program was one reason she joined ADC Telecommunications Inc., a $1.9 billion Minneapolis-based manufacturer of networking equipment. Lin will rotate through three assignments over the next two years, after which she'll choose a permanent post. Her first job was to improve ADC's college intern program. Currently Lin is team leader, project management services. With such a management-development program "you really can explore different careers and locations," she notes. In the end, however, many top business-school graduates will evaluate opportunities based on remuneration. At the University of Michigan salaries offered for positions in manufacturing are about 20% lower than those offered by consulting firms, says Ken Kohrs, codirector of Michigan's Tauber Manufacturing Institute. Also competing for B-school graduates are start-ups, which offer an opportunity to hit the IPO jackpot. As one engineer in the aerospace industry says, "You're competing (for students) with other companies, and not just in manufacturing. The consultants and investment bankers are willing to compensate at higher levels." And the long hours associated with consulting and investment banking don't totally explain the difference, he adds. "With manufacturing, a lot of times your pager is on 24 hours a day." One way to compete is by offering employees ownership in the company. While few manufacturers are enjoying the stratospheric stock valuations of Internet companies, equity stakes help employees feel a greater connection to the company and convey the idea that management is willing to take a chance, says John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Ultimately, companies may have to beef up their pay levels, says Hatch. One manufacturer, for example, has a policy of paying employees at the 90th percentile of its industry. "Essentially, they're buying their people," says Hatch. "They pay a lot of cash, and employees get it every two weeks." While expensive, the alternatives -- turnover and unfilled positions -- can be even more costly. Even companies that do a good job of recruiting, structure meaningful career paths, and offer competitive salaries have to deal with the perception -- real or not -- that they're part of the old economy, and that the action is with Internet-based firms. Consider Jim Miller, a graduate of MIT's Leaders for Manufacturing program. Miller left Intel Corp., which he calls "an awesome company," to become vice president-global supply chain with online behemoth Amazon.com Inc., based in Seattle. "This is really a greenfield operation," he notes. "We're solving problems that have never been solved before." The lure of technology Part of the solution to manufacturing's hiring dilemma may lie in better articulating the technical challenges manufacturers face, and the state-of-the-art tools they are using. "I don't think people realize how high tech manufacturing is," says Ford's Gioia, pointing to the complex algorithms used in logistics modeling and methodology as examples. And as bricks-and-mortar businesses morph into "clicks-and-mortar" enterprises, the gulf between the two should narrow. Many of the challenges manufacturers face are no different from the problems facing Internet companies, says Kohrs of the University of Michigan. One example: the automotive firms, which are becoming very large system integrators. "That poses huge communications, logistics, and supply-chain issues. It's as state-of-the-art as anything in e-commerce," says Kohrs. Manufacturing companies, like other businesses, must deal with a "fundamental change" in the effort to find and hire the best people, notes Laura Owen, vice president, human resources, of ADC Telecommunications. "Twenty years ago, people looked for jobs," she notes. "Now jobs and employers have to find the people."