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Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be ... Manufacturers

March 16, 2012
Viewpoint: It's clear that Americans value manufacturing jobs -- just not for their kids.

How we view the world around us is fundamental to the process of forming values and beliefs and to how we respond to what we think we're seeing around us.

For example, if you've lost a house two times to a tornado is less than one year -- which happened recently to one man in northwest Alabama -- you start to think, "Maybe I shouldn't live here."

For years now, the collective "we" has perceived manufacturing as something important to our nation's well-being -- but not necessarily what we want to do in terms of our own career.

It's pretty much common knowledge that millions of jobs have been lost in manufacturing. So why would I want to work in a factory, where my chances of getting laid off are exceedingly high? That's been the perception.

And like with many things in life dealing with perception, there is probably a kernel of truth there.

Dean Barber: "We have our work cut out for us."
What Mama Wants

So it's not surprising that most parents haven't been especially keen on the idea of their sons or daughters taking a career path into manufacturing, even if manufacturing has been posting job gains for two years now.

(For more on the perception gap in U.S. manufacturing, read "Kennametal CEO Calls on Executives to Talk up Manufacturing's Strengths."

No, make 'em be doctors or lawyers or such.

"Mamas, if they have a choice of their kid going to a four-year college versus going into a manufacturing training program, guess which one they are going to choose?" says Danny Collins, an HR consultant serving the automotive industry in Alabama.

Jeff Moad, executive editor with Manufacturing Executive, asserts that the prevailing perceptions by the public today derive in part from the actions of industry itself.

"To some extent, manufacturing in this country has created this problem by pursuing this outsourcing strategy without much consideration of the impact on the attitude about manufacturing as a career," Moad says.

For corporate decision makers, the choice to offshore may have seemed obvious at the time. We can realize huge savings by shutting down our plant in Anywhere, USA, only to reopen a new facility in Mexico, or China, or wherever we perceive operating costs to be lower.

And as we all know, that strategy was pursued in a wholesale fashion, and entire communities and families were devastated.

Where is that Next Generation?

But do we not think of how this might impact the next generation, the sons and daughters of those plant workers who lost their jobs as a result of an offshoring decision?

Now, years later, that plant in China or Mexico may not have played out to be the great idea after all. Now reshoring is being examined for reasons of costs and quality.

But where are today's skilled plant workers with training and experience?

Where are the motivated young people wanting a career in manufacturing?

What message have we conveyed to them?

Just how do they (young people with career choices before them) view us, the manufacturers?

Here's a revolutionary thought: You reap what you sow.

Try This and See What Happens

Greg Knight, vice president of Columbus, Ohio-based AMT Machine Systems, suggests conducting a little experiment.

In a social setting with a group of people, try suggesting that manufacturing just might be an alternative to a traditional four-year college degree.

"The reaction will be, 'No, my kid needs to go to college.' A career in manufacturing is not seen as a legitimate choice," says Knight. "You cannot change ideas on this in a short period of time. This is about cultural change, and it will take a lot of time and a lot of work."

In the recently released "Public Pulse on American Manufacturing" by Deloitte, only 33% of parents indicated that they would encourage their child to pursue a career in manufacturing, only 19% of school systems are perceived to encourage students to pursue careers in manufacturing, and only 17% of students report being encouraged by their parents to pursue a career in manufacturing.

So clearly the challenge is to change perceptions of both parents and young people, says Moad.

"So we can talk all we want about creating training programs and apprenticeship programs and providing the right resources for training, but at the same time you also have to create a demand for those resources among potential employees -- the next generation of employees," he says.

Right now we are in a presidential campaign season. Candidates roam the country offering ways to "bring the jobs back." But many manufacturers are saying the jobs are already here.

What's missing are the skilled workers needed to fill them. Widely held perceptions -- indeed misconceptions -- about what manufacturing is and represents are partly to blame for the skills gap.

A recent report by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute, based on a survey of manufacturers, found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. This is happening at a time when the unemployed in the United States number about 13 million.

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Kevin Paveglio, president of ECPI College of Technology in Virginia Beach, Va., believes that much of the lack of interest in manufacturing is a matter of exposure. Students and their teachers just don't know what is out there, because they have never set foot in a modern manufacturing plant.

"Where in high schools do they introduce anything like shop?" Paveglio says. "Now shop today would be different. It would be computers and robots and CNC mills, but there used to be a time, when I went to high school, there were no computers then, but we all got exposed to it. They stopped. They stopped completely.

"How do you know if someone has these capabilities and how do you nourish these capabilities? It's when you're young. And if nobody is talking about it, nobody is aware of it. I would make you a bet on my next paycheck that nine out of 10 math and science high school teachers have no idea what is going on in manufacturing right now. And therefore, they cannot transfer that information to kids."

Moad agrees that visibility is key to changing perceptions about manufacturing.

"Kids and their parents really aren't aware of what manufacturing is," he says. "They don't receive any kind of information about it, either in school or in any kind of popular cultural references. There is just no visibility of what manufacturing is."

Share the Load and Open Up

Last week, I wrote about a growing trend in manufacturing that views training as somebody else's job -- specifically that of community colleges and government. That belief has short-circuited efforts or programs to offer in-house training and apprenticeships.

Now, certainly that is not true for all manufacturing companies. Some still have the foresight to provide employees with extensive in-house training programs. But more and more think training can and should be farmed out to somebody else.

I got a lot of reaction from that blog -- mostly positive -- from manufacturing execs who agreed that training in-house has taken a backseat, which already is coming back to haunt us.

Last week, I was not so tough on educators, placing much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of manufacturers.

Actually, it's a shared responsibility between manufacturers and educators. If perceptions are to be changed, both sides have to come together, to educate one another and devise ways to show young people that manufacturing can indeed be a very good career choice.

One way would be to simply open up the plants for public tours and school groups.

"Manufacturers are now starting to permit students back inside their facilities," Paveglio says. "It got very competitive in manufacturing to the point that your little secret was the reason you were making money over the other guy. So we stopped giving tours. We stopped letting people into our plants. We essentially locked them down.

"When I was a young man, we could go tour just about any plant."

Our Torn Views

It's clear that Americans value a strong manufacturing sector. When asked which industries are most important to the national economy, manufacturing is always near the top of the list.

If you were to poll economic developers nationwide and ask them if they could create 1,000 new jobs in their community with any new facility, you can bet that most would choose manufacturing.

And yet, if you were to ask those same economic developers if they wanted their sons or daughters to pursue a career in manufacturing, what do you think the answer might be?

Well, I think you probably already know the answer to that one.

So we're torn. We want manufacturing jobs, just for someone else.

Deloitte's public-pulse study showed that out of seven key industries, manufacturing ranks second to last as a career choice. It remains perceived by most people as an unstable long-term career choice.

And our future talent pool is none too thrilled. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, manufacturing ranks dead last among industries as a career choice.

That's not good.

We have our work cut out for us. So mamas, your babies don't have to grow up to be doctors and lawyers and such. They can have a good future in a modern manufacturing plant if they only pursue the training and develop the needed skills.

Nobody said it can or would be easy. There are no guarantees in life -- just better-informed choices. Manufacturing deserves another look.

Dean Barber is president and CEO of Barber Business Advisors LLC, a Plano, Texas-based site-selection and economic development consulting firm.

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