Where Have All the Manufacturing Workers Gone?

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Where have all the manufacturing workers gone? Gone to brokerages every one! When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

Okay, I’m really showing my age. In the early ‘60s when Pete Seeger was asking, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” we had plenty of workers in our factories, and we had a system that educated and trained those workers to assure that we would always have a trained workforce.

Much has happened since then, but I am not going to spend time looking at the myriad of causes as to how we got to where we are today. This piece is intended to be constructive in nature. But where are we exactly?

For years we have been feeding ourselves a steady diet of nonsense. Our four basic food groups are:

  1. Manufacturing jobs don’t matter
  2. Factories are dirty and dangerous
  3. A service-based economy will do just fine
  4. Everyone is an entrepreneur

It is impossible to imagine how this happened. Without a doubt, it would make a fascinating article. However, today I want to talk about how to fix this. There are three specific things that need to be on our agenda:

  1. Change perceptions of manufacturing and what a career in manufacturing is all about
  2. Leverage what assets we have toward educating people in the necessary skills
  3. Steer people toward success

Each of these deserves a few words of explanation, and then we’ll look at how all of this might work together.

Perceptions About Manufacturing Work

Somewhere, somehow people got the idea that manufacturing meant living like Oliver Twist. Factories are thought of as dirty, dangerous places inhabited by folks creeping about in the shadows for days on end until they are either killed or injured so horribly that continuing their employment is no longer an option.

This just needs the attention of some folks who are versed in the old-fashion and honorable trade of marketing. Factories need to be shown as they really are. Light, clean and orderly are the adjectives I think of to describe the plants I’ve visited. I saw no evidence of the mind-numbing, repetitious assembly line that’s relentlessly moving faster and faster as exhausted workers struggle to keep up.

Growing up, I knew folks who worked in a variety of manufacturing environments including automotive, appliances, food, electronics and aerospace. These people lived in nice homes, drove nice cars, dressed their kids warmly and worked hard to make life good for their families. None of them seemed to be “exploited” or mistreated.

The other misconception I’ve encountered is that manufacturing is a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement. This is a bunch of hooey as well. Where do line leads, supervisors, shift managers, plant managers and VPs of manufacturing come from? They come from the shop floor. Sure, some may augment their practical knowledge with B-school course work or even an MBA, but they still need the real-world experience to be effective.

The overall misperception is that manufacturing just will not provide the lifestyle options that people want today. We laugh at people who want to be middle managers, we scoff at people who are motivated by something other than driving a Porsche or a Benz. We encourage folks to preen in front of a mirror in their US $2,000 suits and suggest that wearing dungarees to work is somehow accepting mediocrity and menial labor as one’s due. Labor is just not something that better people engage in. How did we turn into such snobs?

The unfortunate side effect of this misperception is the dropping of educational options designed to supply trained workers to this industry.

So now we all acknowledge that having a couple of manufacturing plants in town might be a good idea. Unfortunately, we have cut back on training to the point that there is no one qualified to perform this work.  We need to review our options for training workers for the manufacturing sector.

Educational Options

There are three educational channels that have and should continue to carry the main load in terms of providing training and education for manufacturing careers. The good news is, these already exist, and while they may need upgrading, they don’t have to be created from scratch. These assets are:

  1. Public schools
  2. Junior/community colleges
  3. Trade unions

Public Schools

Public schools love to publish how many National Merit and Presidential Scholars they have turned out and how many college-bound seniors they have educated and brag about their average SAT scores. Those are all great metrics, and they are indicative of a quality education for college-bound students. But what about the rest of their graduates?

Preparing someone to do well in B-school, creative writing, math sciences or engineering is important. But what are we doing for the folks who aren’t motivated by those careers or who are gifted in other areas?

What if Johnny doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur? What do we offer someone who is interested in starting a plumbing business, pursuing a manufacturing career with Ford or taking over the family machine-shop business?

Vocational Schools

Most schools used to have vocational education options. These need to be revisited, and the courses need to be upgraded to support the state of the manufacturing arts. Things like robotics, 3D printing and working with advanced materials like carbon fiber need to be taught.

Junior Colleges

If these are beyond the reach of public secondary schools, the junior colleges should pick up the slack, and partnerships between junior colleges and manufacturers need to be expanded. Internships that would place students in plants for a semester would be great for transitioning between education and the workplace. Additionally, these programs would provide great opportunities for potential employers and employees to evaluate one another. These arrangements work for business, and there’s no reason why they can’t work in the manufacturing world.

Trade Unions

Finally, there is one other source for educating our workforce, and that is the trade union. Trade unions have been training apprentice-level workers for centuries. Why not incorporate this process into our education system more formally? Trade unions can pick up part of the marketing of this career option as well.

According to the AFL-CIO, labor unions train 450,000 workers per year.[i] Why not coordinate, align and incorporate this training into a coherent system? It seems like all of the parts are in place; all that is needed is some level of leadership to step up and put things in motion.

Steering Workers into Manufacturing

There is a perception in our education system that if Johnny wants to be a baseball star, an astronaut or a brain surgeon, our system owes him every opportunity to move in that direction. We need to acknowledge that desire is only half the equation in predicting one’s potential for success in a given field.

Right now, brain-surgeon-wannabe, Johnny, is not likely to hear that med school is not in the cards until he is well into college and flunking biochemistry for the third time. Baseball player, Johnny, may be great at college ball, but nowhere near prime-time playing for the Reds.

We need to do a better job of identifying gifts, aptitudes and talents at an earlier age, then we need to do a better job of nourishing those gifts to help kids know what they are good at. For many people, doing something they are good at is more important that doing something cool. Germany does a great job of this in their educational system.

Yes, some doors are virtually closed earlier on in the educational process, but the end result is happier, more productive workers who are appreciated for the knowledge and expertise they bring to their professions.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to study educational systems around the world, and I have to say that I immediately felt as though the system used in Germany resulted in better matches of person to profession and a better appreciation of all work performed well. The German system seems to instill in people a desire to excel regardless of what the job is. No job, well done, is disrespected.

It may be a tall order to swap our education systems with Germany, so let’s start with our guidance and career counselors. These guys are where dreams are reinforced or broken. I have to say that my own experience with them was a bit underwhelming. One counselor told me that I would never be a lawyer if I didn’t master Latin. That type of ignorance is intolerable.

The fact is, we have to do something about our workforce. But, equally important is the need for the rest of us to make sure that people understand that a career in manufacturing is a real career—a valuable opportunity for one to contribute to the society as a whole.

It has become fashionable for presidents and other politicians to crow about “every child” should have the opportunity to go to college. I think a more practical, useful and ultimately more beneficial goal is for every child to have the opportunity to obtain skills, training and education required to become successful in their own right.

When we speak of competing globally, the first requirement is to field a team. We need to be sure that our team is as competent as the competition’s.


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