Self-Defeating Paradigm

As the business outlook gets brighter, companies are focusing on adding quality people. But why are these people still so hard to find? Attitudes about manufacturing careers need to be improved.

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In my travels around the country so far this year, I have heard similar comments from manufacturing companies regarding their current business position. Most agree that things are “looking up” and “moving in the right direction,” sharing a cautious optimism about continued growth through the year.

During the last 18 months or so, all of us have had to focus on the absolute core necessities to keep our businesses going while making cuts and difficult adjustments. Many companies are running lean, and they now have only the best of their workforce employed. As things continue to improve, some have told me that they will try to add people carefully, scrutinizing their work skills and qualifications to find the best. However, in almost the same breath they say that finding qualified people is very difficult. So why, given the current economy, is finding qualified people still a problem?

Growing up in manufacturing, I understand the value of a skilled person, particularly in the production/manufacturing environment. What I see is alarming. It is not new, but it is getting worse. It is a paradigm that far too many are stuck in: “Manufacturing is dying in this country,” “There are no more good jobs in manufacturing,” “I would not have my kids go into this business,” and so on. Yeah, I’ve said these things, too, I must admit, in times of frustration.

I am clearly aware of the work that has gone overseas and the consolidation in our industry, but I still think that manufacturing will continue to be what we do best. In my opinion, the biggest challenge will continue to be finding qualified people who want to work in manufacturing, college educated or not. It is a real problem.

It’s not that we need people to apply with a long list of detailed work skills, but more that they have the attitude that will foster the development of these skills. As I see it, we are not doing much to invite good people into manufacturing. We assume it is because the new generation doesn’t want to get their hands dirty, they don’t want to work, or they just want to sit in front of a large computer monitor. What are we as an industry doing to change that? The answer is, “not enough.” It is almost as if we have become stuck in this negative outlook and accept the idea that “it is what it is.” I hate that expression. It is what we make of it!

I recently participated in a project that was designed to identify the top ten vehicles that exist for getting young people into entry-level skilled manufacturing. As you might guess, we really couldn’t identify ten. We did find a local community college near our company that provides a co-op program for skilled trades, including industrial technology courses and machining. In partnering with a student, the commitment from a company is 600 hours during a 1-year period. The program includes quite a bit of flexibility to aid both the student and participating company. It requires the student to be paid, of course, but not at first. Every participating company first has a chance to evaluate the particular student.

What I found most interesting, though, is that the classes are only half full and that finding partner companies is difficult. Huh? I asked what kind of jobs these kids are looking for, and I was told “a good one—somewhere they can have a stable income and a chance to grow.”

I asked if the students think that a factory job in manufacturing is beneath them or if they have a good view of this kind of work. The administrator responded, “They only know what they’re told. We have guest speakers from industry that are invited to speak to the classes, but they are few. We invite any information that manufacturing companies can provide to us.”

It made me wonder what incentive these kids have to even think about working in manufacturing. What are they being told? The U.S. Department of Labor lists hundreds of apprenticeship programs that companies offer, yet it doesn’t seem like a popular option. If we make an effort to promote careers in manufacturing, it can only help, right? Are we doing that? I don’t think so, but it’s not too late. Most of the people I talk to don’t plan on going out of business anytime soon.

We will be partnering with one of these programs soon. I hope other companies will consider doing the same kind of thing. If word gets out, who knows? We may never get back to where we can interview 50 before we hire 1, but we can try.

It’s time for a new tune. I’m tired of the “is what it is” song. It was stuck in my head, too.