I understand the term's intent, and that it describes workers who are ever-more-valued. I just have reservations about how the term is used. When people think of a "knowledge worker," they think of a white-collar IT professional, engineer, doctor, or others who think to innovate, using their knowledge to better an organization.
But who doesn't?
At almost every shop, tradeshow, and industry conference, I hear the same concern: We need skilled people. The need is constant and somewhat independent of the business cycle. Some automate to make up for the lack of skill, but automation still takes knowledgeable, hands-on people to manage it. In other words, it takes knowledge.
A few managers over the years have opined to me about how shop floor accountability and responsibility have changed over the years. Some have skilled craftspeople on the floor doing setup, machine operation, and maintenance. Others might split these duties up between different people.
Debates over which organizational structure is best could fill volumes, and much of it depends on a company's size, local labor market, and competition. But one fact doesn't change: To climb the ladder anywhere ideally requires knowledge. Metal fabrication needs people with manufacturing knowledge: those who know all the implications behind a welding procedure specification; know the importance of tooling and bend allowance when it comes to the press brake; know when part nesting on a plasma cutting table should be with or against the grain, and why; know the fundamentals of kitted, single-piece part flow versus batch processing.
In other words, they need knowledge workers.
This industry has plenty of them, even though we might not use the term to describe them. Some of the best companies I've covered offer a clear career path for these knowledge workers who show talent and are eager to learn more. For instance, at Power Curbers Inc., a Salisbury, N.C., fabricator of curb-making equipment, management set up an area designated to shop floor problem-solving, called the Resource Department. Floor employees cross train on various fabrication processes and, if they prove their mettle, are promoted to the Resource Department. There, they work on continuous improvement and, if necessary, fill in for shop workers who are either sick or on vacation. They're faced with different challenges every day, and to overcome them they draw from their comprehensive knowledge of fabrication processes. So, in fact, they're knowledge workers. How well they use that knowledge to collaborate with others and improve an organization makes them extremely valuable, even during this recession.
Skilled craftspeople, technicians, journeymen. Call them what you will, but they all build their skills by gaining knowledge, and that is what any industry needs, in good times and bad.