Life pivots around perception and how we respond to what we think we are seeing around us. That’s how we are wired. Sometimes we get it right (I don’t like the way that lion is looking at me so I am getting back into the truck) and sometimes we blow it big time. Just read the Darwin Awards.
So perception, how we view the world around us, is fundamental to the process of forming values and beliefs and how we respond. It is probably the basis for all civilization, much less survival. For example, if you have lost a house two times to a tornado is less than one year, which happened recently to one man in northwest Alabama, you start to think, “Maybe I shouldn’t live here.”
For years now, the collective we in this country have perceived manufacturing as something important to our nation’s well-being but not necessarily that we want to do individually in terms of a career path. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that millions of jobs have been lost in manufacturing. So why would I want go there? Why would I want to work in a factory where my chances of getting laid off are exceedingly high? That has been the perception.
And like with many things in life dealing with perception, there is probably a kernel of truth there.
So it is not surprising that most parents haven’t been especially keen on the idea of their son or daughter taking a career path into manufacturing. No, make ‘em be doctors or lawyers or such.
“Mamas, if they have a choice of their kid going to a four-year college versus going into a manufacturing training program, guess which one they are going to choose?” said Danny Collins, an HR consultant serving the automotive industry in Alabama.
Jeff Moad, executive editor with Manufacturing Executive, says the prevailing perceptions by the public today derives in part from the actions of industry itself.
“To some extent, manufacturing in this country has created this problem by pursuing this outsourcing strategy without much consideration of the impact on the attitude about manufacturing as a career,” Moad said.
For corporate decision makers, the choice may have seemed obvious at the time. We can realize huge savings by shutting down our plant in Anywhere, USA, only to reopen a new facility in Mexico, or China, or wherever we perceive operating costs to be lower. And as we all know, that strategy was pursued in a wholesale fashion and entire communities and families were devastated.
But do we not think that this might not have an impact on the next generation, the son or the daughter of the plant worker who lost his or her job as a result of the offshoring decision? Now, years later, that plant in China or Mexico may not have played out to be the great idea after all. Now re-shoring is being examined for reasons of costs and quality.
But where are today’s skilled plant workers with training and experience? Where are the motivated young people wanting a career in manufacturing? What message had been conveyed? And so, how are we, the manufacturers, now perceived?
Here’s a revolutionary thought: You reap what you sow.
Greg Knight, vice president of Columbus, Ohio-based AMT Machine Systems, suggests conducting a little experiment. In a social setting with a group of people, try suggesting that manufacturing just might be an alternative to a traditional four-year college degree.
“The reaction will be, ‘No, my kid needs to go to college.’ A career in manufacturing is not seen as a legitimate choice,” said Knight. “You cannot change ideas on this in a short period of time. This is about cultural change and it will take a lot of time and a lot of work.”
In the recently released “Public Pulse on American Manufacturing” by Deloitte, only 33 percent of parents would encourage their child to pursue a career in manufacturing, only 19 percent of school systems are perceived to encourage students to pursue careers in manufacturing, and only 17 percent of students report being encouraged by their parents to pursue a career in manufacturing.
So clearly the challenge is to change perceptions of both parents and young people, said Moad with Manufacturing Executive.
“So we can talk all we want about creating training programs and apprenticeship programs and providing the right resources for training, but at the same time you also have to create a demand for those resources among potential employees – the next generation of employees,” Moad said.
Right now we are in a presidential campaign season. Candidates roam the country offering ways to “bring the jobs back.” But many manufacturers are saying the jobs are already here. What’s missing are the skilled workers needed to fill them. Widely held perceptions, indeed misconceptions, about what manufacturing is and represents is partly to blame for the skills gap.
A recent report by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute, based on a survey of manufacturers, found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. This is happening at a time when the unemployed in the United States number about 13 million.
Kevin Paveglio, president of ECPI College of Technology in Virginia Beach, Va., believes that much of the lack of interest in manufacturing is a matter of exposure. Students and their teachers just don’t know what is out there, because they have never set foot in a modern manufacturing plant.
“Where in high schools do they introduce anything like shop? Now shop today would be different. It would be computers and robots and CNC mills but there used to be a time, when I went to high school, there were no computers then, but we all got exposed to it. They stopped. They stopped completely,” Paveglio said.
“How do you know if someone has these capabilities and how do you nourish these capabilities? It’s when you’re young. And if nobody is talking about it, nobody is aware of it. I would make you a bet on my next paycheck that nine out of ten math and science high school teachers have no idea what is going on in manufacturing right now. And therefore, they cannot transfer that information to kids.”
Moad agrees that visibility is key to changing perceptions about manufacturing.
“Kids and their parents really aren’t aware of what manufacturing is. They don’t receive any kind of information about it, either in school or in any kind of popular cultural references. There is just no visibility of what manufacturing is,” Moad said.
“Compare that in this country 50 years ago when probably someone in your family had a career in manufacturing or your neighbors. There were shop classes in school taught by teachers who had careers in manufacturing previously. So there was a lot more visibility back then.”
So people no longer think much about manufacturing and when they do, “it’s thought of as being unsecure and kind of dirty and undesirable profession that is suited to people who can’t make it in college,” Moad said.
Last week, I wrote about a growing trend in manufacturing that views training as somebody else’s job – specifically that of community colleges and government. That belief has short-circuited efforts or programs to offer in-house training and apprenticeships. Now, certainly that is not true for all manufacturing companies. Some still have the foresight to offer extensive in-house training programs, but more and more think training can and should be farmed out to somebody else.
I got a lot of reaction from that blog, mostly positive, from manufacturing execs who agreed that training in-house has taken a backseat, which is coming back to haunt us. Last week, I was not so tough on educators, placing much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of manufacturers.
Actually, it’s a shared responsibility between manufacturers and educators. If perceptions are to be changed, both sides have to come together, to educate one another and devise ways to show young people that manufacturing can indeed be a very good career choice. One way would be to simply open up the plants for public tours and school groups.
“Manufacturers are now starting to permit students back inside their facilities. It got very competitive in manufacturing to the point that your little secret was the reason you were making money over the other guy. So we stopped giving tours. We stopped letting people into our plants. We essentially locked them down,” Paveglio said. “When I was a young man, we could go tour just about any plant.”
It’s clear that Americans value a strong manufacturing sector. When asked which industries are most important to the national economy, manufacturing is always near the top of the list. If you were to poll economic developers nationwide and ask them if they could create 1,000 new jobs in their community with any new facility, you can bet that for most communities, manufacturing would be at the top of the list.
And yet, I wonder if you asked those same economic developers if they wanted their sons or daughters to pursue a career in manufacturing, what the answer might be. Well, I think you probably already know the answer to that one.
So we are torn. We want manufacturing jobs, just for someone else. Deloitte’s public pulse study showed that out of seven key industries, manufacturing ranks second to last as a career choice. It remains perceived by most people as an unstable long-term career choice. And our future talent pool is none too thrilled. Among 18-24 year-olds, manufacturing ranks dead last among industries as a career choice.
That’s not good. We have our work cut out for us. So mamas, your babies don’t have to grow up to be doctors and lawyers and such. They can have a good future in a modern manufacturing plant if they only pursue the training and develop the needed skills.
Nobody said it can or would be easy. There are no guarantees in life, just better informed choices. Manufacturing deserves another look.