Volume 11 | Issue 1 | Year 2008

America’s Industrial Revolution in the 19th century propelled economic development and served as the springboard for this nation to become a world power. Sadly, a number of factors since post-World War II led to a manufacturing malaise that knocked the USA off this lofty production perch. Today, new dynamics are at work which, if this country responds with intelligence and fortitude, can create an “Industrial Evolution” that will revive our manufacturing prowess.
First, it is helpful to discuss why our country is in this predicament because this offers many clues on how to remedy it.

  • Education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice.
  • Foreign born bring language barriers.
  • Manufacturing jobs went overseas.
  • New skills required.
  • Manufacturing gets no respect.

Changing this landscape is doable. The manufacturing community and others connected to it can position manufacturing as the dream job by leveraging these trends with vigor and verve: The industry has changed. New technologies implemented in factories and plants from coast to coast have dramatically transformed manufacturing. The jobs are “cool” and appealing. With such developments, workers can now be experts and enjoy operating the most advanced, sophisticated equipment and automated apparatus in the world. Wages are good. Manufacturers will pay a premium for this expertise and offer highly competitive wages. Jobs are plentiful. With 70 million baby boomers retiring in the next decade, opportunities will abound. According to the DOL, between 2002 and 2012 there will be two million job openings in computer science, math, engineering and physical sciences; and 2.4 million skilled production jobs for machinists, machine assemblers and operators, systems operators and technicians. Skilled jobs are staying in the U.S. American manufacturers are discovering specialized work required today can’t be done overseas.

The convergence of these factors has laid the foundation for an industrial evolution in this country. Yet, there remain many blocks to build to complete the process. Fortunately, initial progress has been made. Here’s what’s needed:

    1. Industry sectors must team up and help drive the process.

Entities that include local economic councils, government units, schools and manufacturers need to create programs and work together. As an example: The Dream It. Do It. Campaign, a program started in 2006 to educate and train local people to fill manufacturing jobs in Smyth and Washington counties in Virginia, using grants from state and local agencies. Already, students have enrolled in 450 occupational and leadership skill training classes and area community colleges, which offer courses specified by the local manufacturers. Bottom line: Such initiatives should be fostered in all regions of the country.

    1. Reach out to potential job candidates when they are young.

Who would imagine that woodworking and welding would replace swimming and sports as major activities for a number of youngsters who attend summer camps? Yet, such programs are starting to flourish, introducing young people to the joys of making things. Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International offers grants for manufacturing summer camps at locations across the country aimed at changing the image of manufacturing for youth. The camps provide positive, hands-on experiences so young people will consider manufacturing as a career.
They target youth at the critical level of secondary education, exposing them to math, science and engineering principles, and giving them opportunities to see the technology being used in industry and the high level of skills required. Bottom line: Parents and educators should recognize the availability of such programs and consider introducing their children and students to these fun, learning experiences.

    1. Get educators on board.

The education system is beginning to join the evolution, although it will require significant urging to those in academia – as well as funding. To illustrate, a new, innovative initiative at Max S. Hayes High School in Cleveland provides students the 21st century skills needed to become blue-collar employees working in manufacturing and computers. The program has a rigorous curriculum, including calculus, chemistry, physics, robotics competitions and rotations in computer-aided design and drafting, computer numerical control machining, robotics and engineering welding. Bottom line: Trade groups and manufacturing executives should aggressively convey to educators the need to create curricula that provides young people the knowledge and skills in demand today on the factory floor.

    1. Recognize overseas labor is not the panacea.

There is a trend now away from relying on overseas work and manufacturers must understand why this is happening – and keep more work at home. Bottom line: Government and economic leaders must frequently communicate such perspectives to manufacturing executives.

  1. Overhaul the image of manufacturing.

Thankfully, new attitudes and perceptions regarding the jobs we do are beginning to get traction. In Carroll County, Md., a local economic council has pledged to overcome the preconceived notions of traditional manufacturing and present manufacturing jobs as an appealing option for youth; a marketing committee was formed to generate ideas to do just that. In addition, “The New Steel” campaign from the steel industry portrays positive features of the industry in national ads. Bottom line: We must constantly inform the media about all of these exciting initiatives with energetic public information campaigns, work with them to help tell these stories to the public – and convince young people dream jobs are there for the taking.

The American Dream has been part of this country’s fabric since its founding. The dream has taken many forms for U.S. citizens – freedom in all of its manifestations, security and protection, living comfortably, and working and earning a decent wage. That last quest has taken a bit of a hit in recent years, particularly for those employed at making products. However, this country is on the cusp of reviving that dream for millions. The beauty is that this is a shared dream, beginning with the manufacturers themselves, who are clamoring for motivated, skilled and enthusiastic workers. Then, there are many organizations now working in concert to help make such relationships happen. And, the influential power of the press is changing course by focusing on the needs – and opportunities. Lastly, we have the young people themselves. As they recognize the exciting potential to work with the most advanced technologies, in a clean, comfortable environment, and receive a high level of wage commensurate with the high skills required, this American dream will live again.

Gerald Shankel is President and CEO, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International, a professional organization with more than 2,000 individual and company members working together to improve the metal forming and fabricating industry. Visit www.fmanet.org.

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