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Letting Go of the Old Manufacturing to Make Room for the New

A new book sets out to change perceptions of the industry through first-person stories and essays.

Terry Iverson considers manufacturing a vocation, not a job. The owner of Iverson & Company, an Illinois machine tool distributor, sees a lot of opportunities for young people in manufacturing’s technology-driven culture, automated facilities, and strong, well-defined career tracks. To spread the word about the industry and hopefully change perceptions, he’s raised more than $22,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book for parents, business leaders and educators called Finding America’s Greatest Champion: Building Prosperity through Manufacturing, Mentoring and the Awesome Responsibility of Parenting.

In the book, Iverson shares his own experiences around manufacturing along with those of 40 others—including drag racer Tony Schumacher, CNC machining guru Titan Gilroy and other entrepreneurs, inventors and manufacturing leaders.

 “Parents and educators, business, and America’s culture must strive to better prepare our youth of tomorrow,” says Iverson. “While I am passionate about manufacturing, the overarching message is that we, as parents, must listen to what lights up our children. So many parents have the opportunity to empower their children or mentor others. An entire generation is waiting for the light switch to be flipped.”

Iverson also founded ChampionNow!, a non-profit organization that introduces young people to manufacturing careers by changing their perceptions, engaging them in internships and inspiring them with videos and presentations.

This excerpt from Finding America’s Greatest Champion is taken from an interview with Warren Young, CEO of Acme Industries, a metal fabricator in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

I have been in manufacturing my whole life. I realized, when I graduated with my engineering degree, that I was quite different than a lot of other engineers, who maybe thrived at the desk, doing their calculations. Maybe it’s part of my upbringing from the farm. I liked to be out touching things, doing things, seeing results. It just looked to me like manufacturing could be full of that. It could entail solving problems that weren’t necessarily strictly analytical.

My youngest son decided when he was picking his major, he was going to take industrial management and that one of his minors was going to be manufacturing management. My wife says, “Why would you want to do that? You know, manufacturing isn’t very viable anymore.”

That really struck home. How could someone in my same household say that to her offspring after her husband was still making his career in manufacturing?

We all know there is truth to the sense that a lot of manufacturing has left this country. Just like a lot of people have come off the farm. There is an analogy there. That doesn’t mean that one should take history, or political science, and just hang out on the fringe of the employed world. Not only is manufacturing not dead, it is being revitalized. There is a bit of a manufacturing renaissance! I think that we’re going to see in the next few years, based on the tax reform that’s happened, there’s going to be a lot of vibrancy in manufacturing. Our biggest challenge is going to be the task of marketing manufacturing as a fulfilling and well-paid career opportunity. If we can’t find the people who are willing to come into manufacturing because they think there is no opportunity there, we are going to be dead.

In 1991, I was transferred to Chicago by the company I worked for at the time. After six years with three different companies, I was thrown onto the beach, as some would say. Instead of looking for another job, I took the advice of one of the guys I had worked for in a prior life. He said, “Why don’t you find a company to acquire? I did it, and you can too!” At the age of 50, not wanting to move my family again and being at a level that while I wasn’t king of the world, it was high enough that the jobs at that age—for what I wanted to do--weren’t that numerous. It’s almost by default that I set out on that journey: OK, I’m gonna go do this.

With the help of an intermediary, we started looking for a certain size of company with a geographic proximity that wouldn’t require me to move my family. I was also looking for the type of business that would match up with my experience and my background, which had been spent in the manufacturing of precision industrial equipment. In the search for a company that could be the next thing to go to, I came across Acme Industries about two months into my mission.

Fortunately, this particular company matched up with my background. While I had never been responsible for selling machined parts before, the machining of precision parts was always part of the manufacturing of the equipment that had been part of my responsibility, making printing equipment or packaging equipment or mechanical seals, or whatever.

Acme had 75 people at the time, doing $18 million in sales. They were located in 40,000 square feet of space in two buildings in Des Plaines, Illinois. They had just put in the last piece of equipment that would fit in the buildings, and there was no room to do anything to grow the business.

At our high-water mark, we have had up to 250 people. Today, we have about 180 people working in two buildings that have a total of 270,000 square feet of space in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. For the year just completed, we did around $50 million in sales, and we think next year we will do about $70 million.

I think the analogy to agriculture is still appropriate. There have been studies done from 1900 to 2000. The fact that there are fewer manufacturing employees than there used to be is due to the productivity improvements, innovation, automation, and technology that have impacted manufacturing. It’s also due to the offshoring of some amount of work. I think if you want to look at the glass half full, we can’t and shouldn’t begrudge some of the manufacturing that’s left the country. That wasn’t where our sweet spot was for our country’s manufacturing base. I think that what we need to emphasize is the fact that there is still a lot of good manufacturing here in the U.S., and we can, and should, continue to build on it.

If we can’t do those higher-end jobs that have the complexity, the need for technology, the need for innovation and entrepreneurship—if we can’t win that game—then shame on us.

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