According to a recent story on PBS and overheard at almost every high school I’ve visited lately, advanced manufacturing needs an image overhaul. When people hear the word manufacturing, they think dirty, sweaty, and covered in a constant film of oily slime. Yuck. They also think of very boring rote work, standing at a loud machine making the same widget day in and day out.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Today’s factory environments are high-tech and high tech means clean! Modern industry is about computer software, complicated electrical machinery, robotics, and multi-tasking. As technology in manufacturing becomes more sophisticated, customer expectations more demanding, and quality system requirements more exacting, shop floor employees are required to possess skills and knowledge far surpassing those of past generations. New training processes are necessary to replace old training paradigms.
This seems daunting, particularly for older workers. The education paradigm is shifting in all sectors as almost no jobs exist today that won’t require continuing education and training. We all need to be lifelong learners to stay afloat professionally. Manufacturing is going through a sea change as baby boomers retire and the needs of the workforce shift and grow. Seems like a perfect time to attract young people. With salaries between $10,000 & $160,000 and a clean, high-tech work environment, you’d think they’d be beating down the doors. But manufacturing has a lingering image problem and entry into today’s factory isn’t as easy as it used to be. Most jobs require more than a high school diploma but less than a Bachelor’s Degree and industry certifications that validate “middle skills” attainment.
It seems like American colleges, trade schools, and industries are tripping over themselves to connect resources to jobs in a desperate effort to bolster our chances of staying competitive in the global marketplace. Stories about apprenticeships academies and associate degrees combined with industry credentials are beginning to compete with the wave of media reports about students graduating with liberal arts degrees to work at Starbucks. I loved my liberal arts education but I know some very smart people who would rather tinker all day than spend as much time in an office chair as I do.
This quote from the PBS article referenced earlier sums the sentiment up beautifully.
“So what if they’re not reading Shakespeare? These guys want to work with their hands. They want to get into the theoretical knowledge, not of the iambic pentameter. They want to get into the theoretical knowledge of Ohm’s law.”
Virginia Manufacturers Association has some pretty compelling information on their website. Did You Know…
•In 2013, manufacturers contributed $2.08 trillion to the economy, up from $2.03 trillion in 2012. This was 12.5 percent of GDP. For every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $1.32 is added to the economy, the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector. •Manufacturing supports an estimated 17.4 million jobs in the United States—about one in six private-sector jobs. More than 12 million Americans (or 9 percent of the workforce) are employed directly in manufacturing. •In 2012, the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,505 annually, including pay and benefits. The average worker in all industries earned $62,063. •Manufacturers in the United States are the most productive in the world, far surpassing the worker productivity of any other major manufacturing economy, leading to higher wages and living standards. •Manufacturers in the United States perform two-thirds of all private-sector R&D in the nation, driving more innovation than any other sector. •Taken alone, manufacturing in the United States would be the 8th largest economy in the world.
So, why the skills gap? Why the lag in interest? Why the image problem? Maybe we should call it Production Technology and talk about robotics and that very attractive wage and leave the word manufacturing out of the title? We need to make it cool. We need to market it better. We need to think like good capitalists. If we want to attract teens into the training pipeline, we need to speak their language. When looking for their language, I found Gatorade. Gatorade speaks to teens. Their ads are based on exploding athletes, competitors, winners, strivers, and comic books. Their ads are cool, their sales are hot.
If we want the next generation of manufacturers to come knocking on these academy doors, appealing to their patriotism may not be enough.
Like so many other areas of our life as we transition into the 21st c., we need a hybrid approach. We can combine the draw of good paying jobs with the caché of continued education; the fascination with gadgets, computers, and robots with the satisfaction of making something, tinkering, and innovating. We have a hugely successful commercial economy based in large part on our ability to manipulate people through ad campaigns. Let’s put those creatives to task on an image upgrade for advanced manufacturing and we might just close that skills gap and really put America back to work.
We can do it. Let’s just think a little more like Gatorade.