America's Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century propelled economic development and served as the springboard for this nation to become a world power.
Sadly, a number of factors since World War II led to a manufacturing malaise that knocked the U.S. off this lofty production perch. New dynamics are now at work, however, which if this country responds with intelligence and fortitude can create an "Industrial Evolution" that will revive our manufacturing prowess.
A pipe dream of industry insiders? Unsubstantiated optimism expressed by corporate leaders? Wishful thinking from trade groups?
Not at all—if manufacturers, educators, trade groups and even media work to fill a critical need dramatically increasing the pool of available, highly skilled industrial workers. Many experts view filling this labor shortage as America's biggest challenge to achieve a manufacturing renaissance and, ultimately, a vastly improved economy.
How did America lose its manufacturing mojo? Is the trend reversible? And what must be done to get it back?
Discussing why the U.S. is in this predicament offers clues on how to remedy it. In some ways, the loss came as a result of a number of elements that combined to form a "perfect storm." Among them are
Today's education priorities rarely position manufacturing as a preferred choice. The U.S. Labor Department came to just that conclusion last summer when one of its economic reports stated, "Too few young people consider manufacturing careers and often are unaware of the skills needed in an advanced manufacturing environment. The K-12 system neither adequately imparts the necessary skills nor educates students on manufacturing career opportunities."
High school counselors often contribute to the malady by directing so many of their students to the typical four-year university program and not considering manufacturing. Colleges and universities have some culpability, too. Although schools may offer training in engineering or computer drafting, how many in recent years offer instruction in more journeymen programs for the new technical positions of today?
Foreign-born job candidates bring language barriers. Although manufacturing jobs do appeal to many immigrants, those who have difficulties with English as a second language often face hurdles that preclude learning the job skills effectively, understanding the work and/or communicating well with their peers and supervisors.
As a result, manufacturing effectiveness takes another hit. The Labor Department acknowledged the impact of lacking language skills in a June 2007 report which observed that the "manufacturing workforce is increasingly foreign born, meaning that possessing adequate English skills is becoming a prominent challenge. Employers have had difficulty finding English language programs that suit their needs."
Manufacturing jobs went overseas. Emerging technologies in India and China initially resulted in a steady stream of jobs going overseas because of low labor rates. Some countries also offered temporary incentives in the form of abatements on taxes, permits, licensing and training.
New skills are required. Most of the fastest-growing jobs today are in industries requiring advanced knowledge and skills and offer high wages, according to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. But many in the available workforce lack these skills and the educational background.
Manufacturing gets no respect. The poor image of manufacturing in recent years—and still today—may be the most powerful factor driving the skilled worker shortage.
In its candid overview, the Labor Department put it this way "Manufacturing confronts a negative image, characterized by such phrases as 'declining,' 'dirty,' 'low-pay,' etc. Consequently, too few highly skilled workers seriously consider manufacturing careers." Lou Schorsch, chief executive of Mittal Steel USA, echoed that sentiment when he told the Wall Street Journal, "Despite being intensely high tech and increasingly clean, policymakers still view us as a dirtyindustry."
Even from a cultural perspective, manufacturing is not part of the American mindset, particularly among young people and certainly among high school students and those younger. After the baby-boom generation, manufacturing took a back seat to newer information technologies and many people no longer wanted to get their hands dirty. "Culturally, we have browbeaten manufacturing to such an extent that we don't have people interested," said John Sinn of the Center of Applied Technology at Bowling Green University in Ohio.
Changing such perceptions is doable. Getting there requires the American manufacturing community and others connected to it to take every opportunity to promote the fact that
The industry has changed. Innovations and new technologies implemented in factories and plants from coast to coast and border to border have dramatically transformed manufacturing. Of course, such complex new production technologies require highly trained production workers.
The jobs are "cool" and appealing. With such developments, workers can now be experts and operate the most advanced, sophisticated equipment and automated apparatus in the world. They can cut steel with laser lights, perform laser welding and plasma cutting, operate water jets and program robotics. Due to this, computer/high-tech skills are needed, which dovetails with what young people love these days these jobscanbe more fun than many service jobs. Plus, this requires a higher education that nearly everyone aspires to.
Wages are good. Here's a key part of the sell Manufacturers will pay a premium for this expertise and offer excellent, highly competitive wages.
Jobs are plentiful. Concurrently, the workforce is shrinking so opportunities will abound. According to Labor Department projections, between 2002 and 2012 there will be 2 million job openings in computer science, math, engineering and physical sciences and 2.4 million skilled production jobs for machinists, machine assemblers and operators, system operators and technicians. At the same time, the current science and engineering workforce is getting older. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, more than half of these workers are already older than 40 and 26 percent are older than 50. The dynamic is impacting our neighbor to the north as well, where experts predict that Canada's aging population will create a shortage of skilled workers.
Skilled jobs are staying in the U.S. There is a prevailing mood in general that taking advantage of low labor rates overseas may not be as advantageous as it seems. There are intangible costs involving political control and currency risks, and a lack of protection for intellectual property. Additional real costs are increased inventories and delays in time-to-market. These costs are hard to see and harder to measure, but they are real.
The convergence of these positive factors has laid the foundation for an industrial evolution in the United States. Initial progress has been made. To build on it, industry sectors and allied interests must
Team up and help drive the process. Local economic councils, government units, schools and manufacturers themselves need to create programs and work together. A case in point the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, which a couple of years ago forged an innovative and unique partnership of Chicago's business, labor, government, education and community leaders. The consortium is working to educate the public regarding the image and societal appreciation of modern high-tech manufacturing; reform the public education and workforce development systems; and enhance government programs for manufacturers and their workers. Such initiatives should be fostered in all regions of the country.
Reach out to potential job candidates when they are young. Who would imagine that woodworking and welding would replace swimming and sports as major activities for a number of youngsters who attend summer camps? Yet such programs are starting to flourish, introducing young people to the joy of making things and underscoring the opportunities in manufacturing.
The Fabricators and Manufacturers Association (FMA) offers grants for summer camps at numerous locations across the country, each aimed at changing the image of manufacturing for youth. Through partnerships with nonprofit organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the FMA provides guidelines on the basic structure of how a camp should be conducted. The organizations then use their community resources to develop the camps based on local manufacturing needs.
Parents and educators should recognize the availability of such programs and consider introducing their children and students to these fun, learning experiences.
Get educators on board. The education system is beginning to join the evolution, although this is an area that often will require significant urging to those in academia—as well as funding. Yet inroads are being made. In Milwaukee, for instance, after years of cuts, some shop classes are returning to local schools. Milwaukee Public Schools re-opened welding labs at two high schools last year. According to local news reports, the system expanded a program in computer-integrated manufacturing and is starting a small-engine program with equipment donated by Briggs & Stratton.
Trade groups and manufacturing executives should aggressively convey to educators the need to create curricula that provides young people the knowledge and skills in demand today on the factory floor.
Recognize that overseas labor is not the panacea. There is a trend today away from relying on overseas work. Manufacturers must understand why this is happening—and keep more work at home.
In its June 2007 issue, Active Magazine identified key offshore risks as including "uneven quality control, communication breakdown because of language barriers, political upheaval and high transportation costs." The possibility also exists that a low-cost factory can steal a U.S. company's intellectual property to build a rival product.
Government and economic leaders must frequently communicate such perspectives to manufacturing executives.
Overhaul the image of manufacturing. Thankfully, new attitudes regarding these jobs are beginning to get some traction.
In Carroll County, Md., a local economic council has pledged to overcome the preconceived notions of traditional manufacturing and present manufacturing jobs as an appealing option for youth; a marketing committee was formed to do just that.
Another prime example is "The New Steel" campaign underwritten by American steelmakers that portrays positive features of the industry with ads. One, headlined "The Backbone of America," shows pictures of steel bridge girders and highlights the industry's military and economic importance.
Manufacturers and allied interests must constantly inform the media about all these exciting initiatives, work with them to help tell these stories to the public and convince young people that dream jobs are there for the taking.
Excerpted from a white paper, "Manufacturing Can Become Newest Green Job for Many America Primes for an Industrial Revolution, But Where are Needed Skilled Workers?", prepared by the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association International.
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