An Open Letter to the Class of 2018

The GraduateFifty years ago, in the movie The Graduate, a recent college grad named Benjamin Braddock is wallowing in uncertainty and unsure what to do with his life, when a family friend comes up and offers him a word of advice. “Plastics,” the middle aged man confides to the young one with a mix of smugness and middle-aged certainty.

Mike Nichols, the director, and Buck Henry, the screenwriter, meant the moment as one of irony at both the meaninglessness of many adult pursuits and the wide gap between the priorities of the two generations. But the simple fact was, that one word would have turned out to be good financial and career advice, had the young Mr. Braddock chosen to take it.

With that in mind, let me take a stab at offering this year’s graduating class a similar bit of one-word advice: Manufacturing.

Class of 2018If I had to do my career over again, or if I were coming out of school right now, like you – high school or college – and was trying to find something financially and emotionally rewarding, I would make the exact same decision today, but for entirely different reasons.

When I first got into manufacturing, it was something of a family birthright. My dad and uncle were in the business, and the old man taught me from the outset the joys of working with metal, of shaping things from raw materials, and of the camaraderie and oneness that can exist on a cohesive shop floor. And I not only fell in love with those things, I never looked back.MFG Tech

But the manufacturing of today is so different, and is now so richly diverse in choices, opportunities and outlets for an array of interests, that truly, I’d not only do it again, I’d be even more excited this time.

The reason being, of course, is technology. Technological advances, software, and digitization have added a layer of career and human possibility to the industrial sector that, frankly, it never even dreamt possible in my father’s day.

In fact, and I say this with certainty, there is likely no sector of our economy these days any more hi-tech or cutting-edge than U.S. manufacturing.

MFG Tech 5Gone are so many belching smokestacks that once defined our sector, along with the grimy conditions, drudgery, and hours of repetitive work. Those aspects of American industry have been long displaced by an historical technical revolution, one propelled forward by such things as computing, innovation, optimism, youthful energy, marketing savvy, new product development, global thinking, and, above all, human imagination.

What’s more, what had once been a largely male-dominated sector, if only for the nature of its work, is now being fueled by the talents and dedication of almost as many women.

You a video gamer? Product development and design these days is video gaming with real world implications.

You like solving puzzles? The same thing applies.

You enjoy forging things with your hands and getting a little dirt under your fingernails? Or would your rather create using only your imagination, your fingertips and a keyboard?

MFG Tech 2Doesn’t matter. In today’s manufacturing, you can do either.

You know that age-old white/blue-collar dynamic? Well, that distinction no longer applies. Because manufacturing is no longer the bastion of blue collar work and blue collar thinking. Today’s professionals wear blue collars, white collars, even no collars. No matter what type of work you like to do, or no matter what type of work fulfills you, it’s being done by people just like you in companies just like mine.

And, speaking of which, do you see yourself working for a large, international corporation, or a small, nimble one? It doesn’t matter, because today’s industry has got both – and everything in between.

U.S. manufacturing, you see, is no longer just a handful of giants in a select few company towns. Today, along with such industrial giants, manufacturing is comprised of thousands of specialty fabricators all across the land, entrepreneurial enterprises that can retool in a matter of weeks and can pop up to fill a need like mushrooms in a forest.

MFG Tech 3And that’s not to mention the quality of the sector’s compensation packages.

I could go on, of course, but I think by now you’re starting to get the idea.

Congratulations, dear graduates, on all your hard work and for achieving all you’ve achieved. But your task is merely starting. Now comes the hard part. Now comes the time when you must take inventory of yourself, inventory of today’s job market, and inventory of our future as an economy.

At that point, you’ll have to make a decision. But whatever you do, do not get caught up in mob thinking. Do not panic because you’re not where you need to be in life. And, above all, do not leave doors closed just because you think you know what’s on the other side.

MFG Tech 4Remember, just because you’ve graduated doesn’t mean you’re through learning. In fact, just the opposite. Those of you who will likely go farthest in this life are those among you who’ve already committed to becoming lifelong learners and to always honing and adding to their skill sets.MFG Tech 6

That’s why I offer this one word of advice and urge you to look beyond yourself, beyond your biases, and beyond your own horizon. And even if that word requires you to go back and get extra training, or it makes you consider a career you’d never even dreamt of before, don’t be afraid of it. It’s a powerful word, and it’s a word rife with personal growth potential.

I’d tell you what it is, of course, but I think you already know it.

Best of luck, my friends. Here’s to good things for you, and bountiful days ahead for each and every member of the Class of 2018!

Thank You, Mr. President

Trump 1There may be no American presidency in my lifetime more polarizing than that of the Oval Office’s current resident, Donald J. Trump. Similarly, no sitting president has ever demanded so much of his people, or challenged or demeaned their most hallowed institutions, to the extent he has.

That’s why, like it or not, even for those who remain patently dumbstruck by some of the crude and hateful things our sitting president continues to say and do, we will likely all owe Mr. Trump a huge debt of thanks at some point in the not too distant future.

Let me explain that from a business perspective.

trump 3Look, I’m a manufacturer. Most of you know that. I make my living and have built my business on the backs of products I make here and sell the world over. I traffic in the global marketplace, in other words.

That’s why the whole notion that a global trade war can be a good thing, much less “winnable,” is clinically insane. Patently insane, in fact. I know it. You likely know it. Heck, anyone with any sense of history at all, or even trace-amounts of understanding of the laws of macro-economics knows it.

Yet Mr. Trump came out, thumbs a-blazing, a few weeks back and boldly tweeted that, in essence, history and economic theorists were full of so much hot air. After all, he was the Donald, was his implication; he was the great deal-maker and brilliant businessman who could easily “win” a trade war.

So what happened? Exactly what you’d expect.

trump 8The free-market capitalists – those raging Wall Street bulls upon whose Brooks Brothers suit-wearing shoulders the modern Republican Party was erected – were stunned, if not stupified. They publicly railed against the president, calling him out for the absurdity of his tweet, however out of the box it may have been.

A number of Republican senators and congressmen likewise began distancing themselves from the president — a president from their own party, mind you — much like one might distance himself from a friend or family member charged with some creepy, sordid sex crime.

Even the president’s own chief economic advisor, former Goldman Sachs honcho, Gary Cohn, jumped ship 48 hours after the mind-numbing tweet. It’s one thing, after all, to swallow a bitter pill here-and-there in the pursuit of a bigger fish you’re trying to fry. It’s something else entirely to betray everything you’ve ever worked for, or everything for which you will ever stand.

trump 7But that’s not all. Once the president called for tariffs that would negatively impact our biggest allies, countries like Canada and the U.K., who was it that came out in support of them? Who was it that rallied behind the tariff-loving president and his duty-licious ideas? A number of Democrats, that’s who – including two members of Congress from Ohio, both of whom stated publicly and proudly that the president should be applauded and that Mr. Trump was absolutely right in proposing duties on all foreign steel and aluminum.

You see, my friends, that’s the way it’s supposed to work in America. That’s how the cards are supposed to fall on the American political landscape; the Republicans on the side of a deregulated, open market, and the Democrats all-in for government intervention as a shield to protect blue collar jobs from the realities of the market.

Republicans for global capitalism and Democrats for internal social relief.

trump 5But that’s not the world we’ve grown to see unfolding these past two years; what with Republican Wall Street gazillionaires spewing frothy rhetoric about supporting noble coal miners and down-on-their-luck steelworkers, and Democrats extolling the deep and bountiful wisdom of the open marketplace.

But thanks to Mr. Trump, things are, at long last, getting back to some semblance of normal. Thanks to his one simple, tone-deaf and horrifically anti-business tweet, Republican wolves far and wide found themselves freed to finally shed their sheep’s clothing and lash out, fangs bared, while just as many Democrats were able to, at long last, return to their labor union/blue collar roots and speak a language they grew up speaking.

No, the culture war at the heart of our national divide is not over. And no, this country’s rank-and-file will not be lining up behind Nancy Pelosi any time soon. But this is a step in the right direction. And we owe Donald Trump a tip of the cap for that.

trump 6In the last presidential election, the man brought millions of completely disengaged Americans on the far right back to the political process. His rhetoric – even if it was merely that; rhetoric – spoke to them in a way no politician had in years.

Similarly, it’s a virtual certainty that as many Americans (and, likely, significantly more) who are long-disenchanted voters at the political center (not to mention left of it) will likewise be re-engaged by Mr. Trump – even if it is to try to humiliate him in the midterm elections.

America lives and dies by its electoral process. That’s an absolute certainty. And in time, my sense is, we will thank him for all he did to bring tens of millions of American voters back to that process.

trump 2Similarly, the business of America is business. And, unless I miss my guess, for all Donald Trump did just to expose our business and political leaders – left and right – for who and what they are, we will likewise owe him a deep debt of thanks. Because someday Mr. Trump just may be remembered as the politician who, through his lies, lack of understanding, and aversion to facts, made all the other politicians finally stand up and speak the truth.

On Energy, Policy and the Wisdom of the Marketplace

ExportsThere are any number of things that decades in manufacturing have taught me, not the least of which is the inherent wisdom of the marketplace. In fact, for a guy whose political bent, sense of environmental responsibility, and pro-social conscience can tilt proudly left at times, my belief in the absolute wisdom of the marketplace is as far right as right can be.

That is especially true in matters of energy. Consider these few recent examples of how the market proved more sage and powerful than any one policy, any one ideology, or any one man – even when that man turned out to be President of the United States.

When manufacturing came roaring back over the final few years of the Obama administration, it wasn’t because of any specific policy, regulation, or executive order. It was because the price of natural gas cratered to the point that natural gas-generated energy suddenly became more affordable and accessible for us manufacturers, and we and countless capital investors responded in kind.

FrackingWhen fracking came to a screeching halt around that time, it wasn’t because environmentalists said or did something that made a light bulb go on over the heads of fracking’s proponents. It was because, again, natural gas proved to be cheaper than shale oil and the market (and investors looking at fracking start-ups) simply reacted accordingly.

And now, a company called Xcel, Colorado’s largest and most powerful utility, and a company with millions of customers from Texas to Michigan, has embraced wind and solar power as a way of augmenting its massive portfolio of energy sources.

XcelWas doing so a matter of environmental responsibility? Or maybe a philosophical desire for a cleaner and more renewable relationship with the planet? Maybe to a degree, but the far more compelling reason was purely financial.

Xcel looked at the future, assessed the present, and made a cold, hard business decision – one based on this simple fact; renewable power is now cheaper to produce than traditional fossil-burning power.

Wind and solar capture technology has developed to such an extent, and the cost for wind and solar power has reduced so dramatically that Xcel’s CEO, a dyed-in-the-wool finance guy, has said his company can now build all-new a renewable power facility for cheaper than it can maintain and operate a fossil-burning one – including coal plants, which for decades had been the standard bearers for cheap production.

Trump CoalAs a born-again conservative, one would think President Trump would embrace such a market-driven phenomenon. After all, a free and open marketplace – a global one, that was unfettered by such things as tribalism, regulation and government-based sanctions, price supports and import/export duties – should be the be-all and end-all for any card-carrying market conservative.

Yet, at least to this point, that’s not been the case.

We’ve seen instead, our president go all-in in his support of coal – including trying (unsuccessfully) to federally subsidize coal companies, while pulling similar support from firms focused on the further development of wind and solar power.

Trump SolarMario Cuomo once said we campaign in poetry but govern in prose. To that end, it was understandable – especially given the fact that at the time he was courting disenfranchised coal mining voters who’d been displaced by a toxic combination of globalism, shifts in consumer demand and advances in technology – for candidate Trump to promise to bring coal back to a place of prominence in the economy. After all, to paraphrase Cuomo, it was West Virginia; a state (and, frankly, situation) that was just begging for some juicy political poetry.

Similarly, when President Trump imposed duties on all Chinese solar panel imports, it made for a great pro-worker sound byte – especially for those who voted for him and who continue to view him as a champion of the American working man.

But in doing so, Mr. Trump not only attempted to put a chill in one of the most exciting and fastest-growing segments of the energy sector, but he threatened the livelihoods of thousands of men and women who earn a paycheck working for companies tasked with the installation of those Chinese solar panels.

SolarSimilarly, by embracing coal so unabashedly – a group hug that flew in the face of current market demand, growth potential, and virtually every new technology – he created a void in global clean-technology leadership, a void that was immediately seized upon by our most dangerous and ravenous competitor, China.

Now that he’s president, Mr. Trump owes it to free-market capitalists everywhere – people like me and the hundreds, if not thousands of U.S. manufacturers who think as I do – to cease his penchant for campaign poetry and to start governing in real-life, real-world, bare-knuckled prose.

The U.S. needs a national energy policy that is purely and quintessentially market-driven. It needs a policy that does not discriminate on the basis of politics, ideology, campaign contributions or nostalgia for dying industries. And our economy, Trump Perry Energy Policyespecially the industrial sector, needs such a policy desperately – one devoid of any personal biases and cheap, campaign rhetoric.

Let’s hope, 13 months into his administration – at least when it comes to American manufacturing’s relationship with the global energy marketplace – our president does the right thing. Let’s hope finally shuts up and he lets those two wise, dynamic and powerful forces – one named supply and the other demand – do his talking for him.