Can the US shift out of a destiny as a service economy?
Talk reshoring and you get a very mixed bag of opinions. Greater cost analysis is going on at OEMs, and regional US contract manufacturers are starting to see the benefits. But, a compelling counterargument is that serious skills shortages could make attracting workers difficult, particularly as the economy recovers.
The current generation entering the workforce has been sold on the concept that manufacturing is not a growth industry, and the future is in a service economy or in very high-end technical careers. As a result, younger workers aren’t excited about manufacturing careers. But is this really that big an issue? Can we change the playing field?
I’ve never felt that a service economy was a good path. A conversation I had with a production worker in the 1990s reinforced that. I was leaving one contract manufacturer for another, and my colleague thanked me for working there. I had done a good job, she said, because when I had taken over the sales team I started bringing in more business, which in turn made her feel more secure about her job. She went on to say that before coming to work for that company, she had been working three low-wage (service sector) jobs to make ends meet. She hardly saw her kids and had no health insurance. With a manufacturing job, she was able to work a single shift, be home for the kids and gain health insurance. That conversation taught me that contract manufacturing wasn’t simply a business concept. It helped change people’s lives.
The reality is that we can change the playing field, but only if we take the time to educate those who aren’t in manufacturing about what production means to a healthy economy. Here are a few places to start:
- High schools/community colleges/local universities. Make sure the schools in your region are connected with good STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) resources. At the community college level, explore whether relevant “hands on” training is available. Community colleges focus on career training that leads to jobs. Owners or managers at manufacturing companies can talk to school administrators about the skills needed and the number of employees in those fields you plan to hire. Send staff to career days to promote manufacturing careers. I know one company had one of their engineers serve as adjunct faculty at one “hands on” SMT training program. The payback was the ability to recruit the top students. Another company president regularly visits his local community college to get kids excited about the technology used on his factory floor. Other companies provide internship or work/study opportunities.
- Local/state/federal politicians. The only time most politicians see a factory is when they need a blue collar campaign photo op. Lack of understanding contributes to poor policy. Picking industrial winners and losers, supporting “feel good” legislation like conflict mineral regulations and turning a blind eye toward manufacturing incentive programs other countries deploy are just a few of the bad policy decisions driven by this ignorance. Get to know the politicians whose policy impacts your business, and make sure they understand the difference in terms of compensation and benefits quality between a factory job and one at a retail store or restaurant. Let them know what resources your business needs to compete.
- Your employees. Encourage your employees to talk to their friends and families about what they like about being in manufacturing. Provide cash incentives for recruiting people for scarce positions. Have an open house for families with production demonstrations and explanations of the positive impact the products you make have on the people who use them.
Your kids. Make sure your kids understand the benefits and excitement of a manufacturing career. Encourage math and science study. Build DIY kits at home. In short, teach the excitement that comes with helping to create the latest gadget.
Why should we care if the US has a strong manufacturing base? Two reasons. First, not every child has the aptitude for college. Manufacturing jobs have been one way those kids could still have a well-paying career. More important, a strong domestic manufacturing base is important to national security. The more dependent we become on other nations for critical components and products, the less we control our destiny.
To me, the biggest challenge we face isn’t a skills shortage. Instead, it is ignorance and bad attitudes. Look at any low labor cost region that is growing its manufacturing base, and you won’t hear concerns about the educational levels of the workforce or discussion about spending more on schools. Companies that see benefit in expanding their businesses train the workers they need and often get incentives from their respective governments for doing it. We used to do that here. At one point in the ’80s, 90% of the world’s personal computers were built in Arab, AL, by retrained chicken pluckers. The difference today is that while the workforce in Arab loved the idea of better compensation and the ability to work in a climate-controlled factory because it was a step up, many of today’s potential workers see a factory job as a step down. For manufacturing to truly grow, that perception must change. Help the manufacturing base continue to grow by putting the right “spin” on the value of careers in manufacturing.
is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (powell-muchaconsulting.com), and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services;