The Editor's Page -- Skilled Workers: Expense Or Asset?

May 7, 2001
Cavalier treatment contributes to continuing labor shortage.

Manufacturing companies have repeatedly sent their message to skilled manufacturing workers: Don't call us, we'll call you. It has been heard loudly and clearly, and now employers are reaping what they've sown.

A labor shortage plagues manufacturing, and is expected to worsen in the years ahead as two forces conspire to starve companies of their most valuable resource: Fewer people are willing to enter the field, while more current employees are heading toward retirement.

In "Vanishing Breed," Senior Editor Michael A. Verespej explores the causes of the workforce shortfall and details what companies are doing to address it. His reporting shows that long-held stereotypes about plant-floor work continue to deter most young people from considering a job in manufacturing.

Worse, he discovered the uncomfortable truth that executive leaders are at least partly to blame for the persistence of those stereotypes. It's irrelevant that manufacturing executives never intended to brand plant-floor work as dead-end, low-paying jobs that anyone with half a brain could do. Their collective actions have spoken louder than their rhetoric.

For many manufacturing executives, plant-floor employees exist in a continually shifting space where they can be lauded as the company's greatest asset during good times (the words) and jettisoned as needless expense during bad (the actions).

The dirty little secret is, those stereotypes provide convenient justifications for executives when they make shortcut leadership and management decisions to limit investment in plant-floor employees. After all, if we elevate the skilled-manufacturing role to its proper place as an exciting, innovative, desirable vocation, we'll have to pay, train, and respect the workers more.

And that's in the good times.

During downturns we'll have to exhibit a courageous form of leadership, defending against mass layoffs when Wall Street and the rest of the investment community screams for them.

Mercifully, you have at your fingertips over 15 years of cumulative data from Best Plants Awards program and IW's Census of Manufacturers research to support you in implementing strategies that refute the plant-floor stereotype. Data from both projects prove that valuing plant-floor personnel pays off in higher finished-product first-pass yields, increased productivity, and more.

It's up to you to provide the leadership to end the cavalier treatment of skilled labor, if you expect to end the workforce shortage. First you have to believe -- truly believe -- that plant-floor workers are an asset that your company cannot afford to lose. Then you must put forth the leadership needed to demonstrate your commitment to these jobs, by investing in them during good times and defending them in bad times.

Until you treat skilled manufacturing jobs as long-term, valuable investments, you can't expect prospective employees to view them as viable job opportunities.

Patricia Panchak is IW's Editor-In-Chief. She is based in Cleveland

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