Straight talk on the future prospects for reviving manufacturing - Part 2

Friday, May 13, 2016

This report is presented in a three part series in Target Online in May. It is an in-depth discussion of the Skills Gap problem we are facing and will be published in three parts:

Part 1 The Challenge – What obstacles are companies facing with closing the Skills Gap?

Part 2 The Options – What actions can be taken to close the Skills Gap?

Part 3 What we have to do differently – What are new and creative ways to close the Skills Gap?


We covered Part 1 last week and next week we’ll address Part 3.

Part 2 The Options – What actions can be taken to close the Skills Gap?

The "precarious crossroads"

This leaves the manufacturing sector at a decidedly precarious crossroad, where unskilled labor is simply becoming unnecessary in the age of robotics and intelligent machines. The fusion of CAD/CAM/CNC and quality control will need to be overlaid with the product lifecycle management outlook to produce the most cost-effective and efficient manufacturing process for delivering near perfect 1st time quality products to the market. One example is the importance of mechatronics in the machine building industry. Augmented reality already plays a key factor in the design and construction of the machines for that digital factory.

That leaves the job shop setup experts and machine maintenance personnel, which were always so vital to being flexible in bygone days, obsolete. Technology savvy technical associates will now be tasked to perform complex make-ready and service an entirely new generation of sensor equipped machines and manufacturing cells. Even more challenging, the emergence of the digital factory, with its blending of the virtual and the real, has already taken hold of large sectors in the American economy, including automotive, aerospace, medical part manufacturing and others.

So, Where will the skills come from?

Thus, the attention grabbing idea of a disruptive digitally connected manufacturing arena is certainly bedazzling to many of us, but it sidesteps the huge obstacle we face of who has the skills in most shops to run it? Not the existing workforce, many of whom are digitally challenged just mastering smartphones. And not the high schoolers being dutifully prepared for college entrance, many of whom cannot even use a tape measure because in their curriculum, they've never been taught to. Today's students must be prepared for careers in manufacturing, which will be essential for any manufacturing resurrection. 

A Washington education expert Dr. Ellis Crasnow, says: "We are educating students today in schools of yesterday for jobs tomorrow that don’t even exist, our emphasis is on learning versus teaching, our students learn by doing, experiencing and constructing rather than just sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher." A Chamber of Commerce survey found that only 11 percent of company CEO's believed that "graduates arrived to their company Job Ready." That contrasts with 96 percent of school administrators who believed that their graduates were "well prepared" for entry into today's workforce. If perception is reality, what difference does it make which group is right? There is a big problem brewing!

And the executives and Owner/Operators of the 250,000 small and midsized manufacturing companies, who employ most manufacturing workers, are not stepping up to the challenge. Not enough of them are interning students or defining the necessary educational curriculum for the school's instructors. Employers have convinced themselves that they cannot afford to educate these students for competitive reasons. But they really cannot afford not to. These are the 80 percent of manufacturers with fewer than 200 employee populations. The smaller component makers who mostly employ fewer than 20 employees, would benefit most from breakthrough productivity performance, but don't because they can't imagine who will do or could do the skills training for them? So exactly where will these worker skills surface from?

If you want it done...You Need to Do-It-Yourself

The take-away for companies looking to recruit new employees to build a digital future with a young talented workforce is that they must do it for themselves. Finding candidates is difficult because there are far too few qualified students anxious to start a manufacturing career. This is due to a perception bias about manufacturing. Only 35 percent of parents encourage it. If there were more students seeking training for manufacturing positions, they would be disappointed because there is also a severe shortage of "shop smart" career and technical education instructors. Ask yourself “how many CT&E Instructors have visited your site to learn about your best practices lately?” If you are one of the small number of companies that can say "yes", half of your skills shortage problem is likely solved. Instructors with practical shop experience are the second best influence in persuading students (2nd after students personally experiencing manufacturing jobs through a site visit) to pursue a career in manufacturing.

So local manufacturers need to excite their local high school students to look at their plant site. Some conduct 'open house shop tours featuring after tour free hot dog & hamburger picnics'.

And they need to be aware that there are some ambitious young students available if a company reaches out and looks hard enough. Another way to find promising students for job vacancies is by having your shop associates assist the local school's instructors teach the practicalities of the kind of work that your company is doing. Demonstrating to a class of students, through videos, of the work your company is good at, embeds both the images of the work and the personalities of people working for your company. Most high school students have never been inside a modern factory and are stuck with a Hollywood rendition of what it is like. Not very flattering!

But the SME Owner/Operator needs to realize that the brightest and most talented STEM knowledgeable students, sometimes called millennials, are absolutely not seeking to fill the jobs replacing a retiree who spent 20 years on the same machine as an operator, getting along by portraying a good attitude and willing persona. The days of 'good hearted Charlie' are over. You need to meet these impressionable new recruits 'where they are' not where you want them to be.

How to Attract the 'best and brightest'

The best and brightest students want to work in a vibrant, robust, high tech environment that stands for something they believe in, and is going places at a quick pace. They want to work in teams where they can learn new things quickly; they want to perform a variety of different challenging tasks to acquire multiple skills. Most graduating students want the opportunity to continue to learn the new technologies as their career progresses. And all of them want to be immediately recognized for it. All these new entrants to the workforce also want to be engaged in improving the business in meaningful ways for social good. Like the Starbucks barista "meeting interesting people and making the world a better place one cup at a time."

So the disruption that will be most necessary in manufacturing, is disruption to the tired business models that many manufacturing companies continue to adhere to. Many of these youngsters come with body art and jewelry that they believe deserves respect. They don't relate to clichés like "bigger, better, faster," "keep your head down and work hard," and "machines should always be humming;" and other stereotype attitudes need to be suppressed in initial interviews. They do relate to YouTube videos of what your associates have to say about your organization. These are inexpensive and effective, plus they get the message across quite well.

These Owner/Operator 'old timers' need to commit to change the work culture, which requires changing the way work is viewed. In the new manufacturing world cost needs to be calculated as material plus overhead, where touch labor has been reduced through technology to a rounding error on the total. Manufacturing 4.0 will be nothing like the 'piece work' models of old, or the mass production models that came thereafter. Even the 'Lean' demand flow and Six Sigma quality business model will be strained to fit with the new generation's ambitions. It's now all about prudent capital investment delivering a perfectly satisfying experience with velocity and without friction.

If You Don't - Somebody Else Will

This is where there remains a big disconnect between the thinking of the small and midsize manufacturer versus some larger advanced companies, both needing to hire technologically adept talent to grow. They are competing for that 'new' digitally conditioned millennial workforce. The new business model could deliver the productivity gains to alleviate the critical skills shortage. But companies offering young people a position for the "same-old, same-old jobs" is a disconnecting turn-off to the young candidates. It reinforces the stereotype of "dull, dirty, and dead-end" factory jobs that no ambitious, young, new student entrant would want.

Dear Executive/Employer/Owner: the best and brightest candidates are two generations removed from you; so you need to learn what they are thinking. Your company officials need to seek them out by engaging with their local schools where they reside. Companies need to bring in young job candidates as Interns or in part-time job shadowing positions so company employees can get to know them, and let them learn the company protocols. These young students are much smarter than you think and they bring ambitious ideas with more productive promise than the incremental improvement suggestions you are currently getting from your retiring workers.

How to Get A Head Start

One of the best ways for an employer to acquire a "customized and tailored" next generation workforce is to groom one for themselves. It is best done in collaboration with other likeminded companies, area high schools , community and technical colleges, government agencies, and professional facilitators. Not a small task, but one that will not happen without vision, initiative, and hard work (and an ambitious, tireless, and talented individual to start it). Once started, it will be a long term process, not a one-night stand.

The objective is initiating a program of local employer groups of 6-10 companies into "clusters", organized and led by a facilitator to develop youth with Job Ready workforce skills. Skills to be acquired and certified through remedial preparation in (Safety, Workplace Math, Blueprint/Job Instruction reading, Quality Metrology, and Work Protocols). These are 'common sense' subjects which are found not to be common knowledge to graduating high school diploma holders. High School graduates without any experience in a manufacturing workplace did not appreciate that 'flip-flops' and body-jewelry were a safety issue in a site filled with rotating equipment and sensitive instrumentation. Most wondered why 'blueprints' we're not blue, or why unplanned absences would be a problem. Many of these smart-phone savvy youngsters have never seen a tape-measure, caliper, or a straight edge. This new generation of high-tech youngsters is at least two or three generations removed from the owner-operators of small and midsize manufacturing companies. Employers need to respect the "differences" in knowledge and help to prepare them for success.

Read Part 3 next week-- What we have to do differently – What are new and creative ways to close the Skills Gap?

Kenneth J. McGuire is president of Management Excellence Action Coalition, an international education and counseling firm to manufacturing and operations companies and is Director of AME’s Scholarship Program. As an educator on these topics, he is a U.S. leader in advancing the trends of 'best world practices' and applying them in operations management.