It was refreshing to see the skilled-labor crisis--an issue near and dear to metal fabrication--grace the front page of the Sunday New York Times last week. It was the first in a weekly series called “Learn to Earn.” That’s such a great title. It hints at a pervasive problem. Recent grads may know plenty, but not what the business world needs. Meanwhile, metal fabricators have trouble finding people who can read a tape measure.
The article again sheds light on the fact that yes, indeed, the U.S. manufactures plenty--a persistent misconception that’s unfortunate, even if it does lead to some amusing parodies.
It also sheds light on the high-tech nature of the modern shop. At the same time, though, it points to a fact that clouds the manufacturing sector and perhaps prevents some of the best and brightest to consider the sector as a career option.
“In manufacturing … work once performed on low-skilled assembly lines has mostly moved offshore or been automated. The jobs that remain require workers who can interpret blueprints, program computerized machinery, and solve problems on the fly.”
The second sentence trumpets the fact that high technology doesn’t mean zero human intervention, that people tending machines are mere button-pushers. They’re problem solvers, and as anyone in manufacturing knows, they can make or break a company.
The first sentence, though, may be manufacturing’s next image problem. Its first image problem, of course, is that such jobs are dark and dirty, and the Times article, among others, is helping to change that image. Unfortunately, the image that’s often promoted is that automation is helping fewer workers produce more.
Fewer workers can produce more?
Is it a surprise that shop and vocational programs are closing down, or that many high school guidance counselors haven’t stepped foot inside a manufacturing plant? Not only are vocational programs expensive (machine tools cost more than English books and computers), the industry has gone through a fundamental shift in recent years. We’ve lost millions of workers, yet taken alone, U.S. manufacturing would be the ninth-largest economy in the world. That sounds impressive, but from another perspective, it doesn’t sound as if manufacturing is hurting after all those layoffs.
Fewer workers can produce more. Hearing this again and again, as a top student graduating into such an economy, would you choose a manufacturing career?
Perhaps we need to refocus the communication effort, because “producing more with less” isn’t the entire truth. The truth is manufacturing workers can--if they put their minds to work--be more valuable than ever. Manufacturing of tomorrow will be about how the best minds can squeeze such inefficiencies out of the system. How would it be if at least the basic concepts of Six Sigma, theory of constraints, and lean manufacturing were taught not just in college or in professional seminars, but in high school or even vocational programs?
It could introduce students to a kind of critical thinking that can have amazing effects on manufacturing. It’s logic, not a mundane bureaucracy that breeds lifeless buzzwords. Do students want to push papers all day? Or do they want to have a chance to dream up better ways for a shop to make more money by producing tangible products the market demands?
It’s a fact of life that, yes, fewer workers do produce more, but the same could be said for a lot of jobs these days. Manufacturing can offer students a promising career for those who think clearly and don’t mind getting their hands a little dirty. As workplaces go, that sounds pretty engaging to me.