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Honing Worker Skills Should Be Job One

skilled worker 1Three years ago I had the chance to sit down with a young man and offer him some career advice.  His name was Bobby. Two years earlier, he’d been a football player at a local high school who seemed this close to winning a college scholarship; and going to college was something Bobby, a mountain of a working class kid, would probably not have been able to do without the financial relief afforded him by a full, four-year ride.


But, alas, a questionable block, an exposed knee, and a few severely torn ligaments later, Bobby suddenly found his options for what came next in life reduced considerably.


Bobby StephensI remember Bobby had sought me out on the advice of a mutual friend, who felt the young man might possess an aptitude for skilled labor; in part because as a kid he’d always excelled at making things.  I told him in my office one day how exciting and rewarding manufacturing was as a career choice.  I told him too he should develop a very specific and marketable set of skills, and that he should try to be the absolute best at whatever skills, or whatever trade, he chose.


I told him as well that since automation was ramping up quickly in our sector, that whatever skill he chose, he should be aware than he will need to mfg skills 6constantly build upon it, add to it, or maybe even ditch it altogether and change horses mid-steam, should the need arise.  I told him that would be the only way he’d remain in-demand and relevant in what promises to be an ever-changing job market.


After our conversation, my friend told me Bobby decided to go to trade school to learn to become a welder.  Only the young man didn’t just become a mgg skills 1welder.  He became an almost freakishly good welder; so good, in fact, that his teachers who initially thought he must have some kind of training before enrolling, eventually asked him to start teaching a class or two at the school, which he now does as a sideline. 


So the young man now not only has one job.  He has two, with options for even greater career growth opportunities suddenly there for the picking.


mfg skills 5But the point of this post today isn’t Bobby.  It’s manufacturing skills. 


Since that day in my office a few years ago, the increased demand for high-level factory skills and the diminishing reliance on low-skill, repetitive manual labor has only heightened. In fact, robotics and automation and have become such important considerations in today’s job market, that the Atlantic recently ran a cover story around a scenario in which some 6 million American jobs could be lost across multiple sectors to automation in the not-too-distant future.


mfg skills 4In one sense, the solution is not an easy one.  No one knows where technology or the future is headed; certainly not those workers with limited job skills. And even those barons of industry at the very top of the food chain must be debating what such a stunning job loss would do to the overall strength of the economy.


mfg skills3But in another sense, the answer is easy.  If you’re a shop worker, broaden and deepen your skill sets.  And do it now. Go back to school, even on spec.  Turn yourself into a lifelong learner.  And try as hard as possible to hone to an even greater degree the job skills you may currently possess. 


Remember, there will always be a market for hard workers with in-demand skills. The question is, tomorrow what will those skills be?  And the more skills one has, the more likely one (or more) of those skills will remain valuable to those in the industrial sector, large and small.


mfg skills 2The era, alas, when landing a job in manufacturing and keeping it for decades is gradually becoming an endangered species.  Technology alone is altering almost daily the landscape in which we work, if not the very nature of our business.  And today’s prince may well become tomorrow pauper without the ability to keep one eye on the task at hand and one eye squarely on the horizon. 


And that goes for both those on the shop floor and those in all those corner offices across this industrial landscape of ours. 


skilled worker 2Again, it sounds simple, but it’s not.  In this day and age, for management and labor alike, it’s all about the skills; and the more you have, and the more highly refined they are, the better. 


If you don’t believe me, take a lesson from a young man who’s living the reality.  Talk to a kid named Bobby.


Embracing Failure

Captain AmericaWe’re a nation of winners.  I get that.

If you’re not first, you’re last.  I get that too.

And failure is not an option.  Heck, I get that as well.

In fact, I get it all.  As a country, if not an economic power, we Americans have a deep-rooted, if not pathological aversion to anything remotely resembling failure.  As if failure is some form of creepy cultural, social and even moral disorder.

Failure stains us.  It brands us.  Failure determines that the world will forever see us as, somehow, whatever the opposite of a champion is.  (Oh yeah, a loser.)

Fear of Failure 1But what if I told you that some of the most breakthrough products of the 20th Century resulted from abject and unconditional failure?  That’s right.

For example, at one point 100 years ago or so, a health-conscious dietician who had spent months trying to come up a palatable breakfast gruel from a rather unappetizing blend of wheat and oats. And having failed miserably to develop any mixture with even trace amounts of commercial appeal, one morning in his kitchen he spilled some of his experimental breakfast glop onto the scalding hot stove in his test kitchen, at which point the drops immediately turned to flakes.  The funny thing was, that foul smelling batter he was working on tasted far better in flake form than it ever did in liquid form.  And with that, an American breakfast institution called Wheaties was born.

Fear of Failure 3And that’s just one example.  Such iconic and (at times historic) inventions as bubble wrap, post-it notes, penicillin and even the Slinky all share similar backstories, as some blend of failure and good fortune seemed to smile on the developers and decree that marketplace magic — poof — would happen.

Heck, why do you think they call it WD-40?  Not for any scientific reason, I can assure you.  But because before stumbling on the formula for what would prove to be a miracle in a blue and yellow can, the scientists who developed that lubricant tried and failed 39 other times.

WD-40Look, I’m two things, and for as long as I can remember have always been those two things.  I’m an independent manufacturer.   And I’m a small businessman.

And inasmuch, I have lived my life in constant fear of failure.  If (either as a small shop owner or a small businessman) I had ever bet precious capital on a product that tanked or ever completely retooled due to a miscalculation, my shop might have closed its doors forever.

But these days everything’s changed.  And I mean everything.

Fear of Failure 4Technology has given us manufacturers a line of credit we’ve never had at our disposal before, freeing us once and for all from what had always been an almost crippling fear of failure.  Such technological game-changers as cloud computing, 3D design, and, above all, additive manufacturing have reduced our risk to a fraction of what it had been; which has allowed us to experiment as never before and take chances we never dreamed possible.

Fear of Failure 2Sure, the marketplace is more voracious than ever, not to mention exponentially larger, vastly more complex, and infinitely more fickle.  And sure, technology is changing the rules almost as quickly as we can learn them.

But the one thing that has always limited manufacturing as a sector, namely our unifying fear of failure, has been tempered, if not tamed altogether.

risk taking 1Now, the challenge for us is to do something with all our newfound testicle fortitude. Without drilling too deeply here, let me just say we must really try to do three things.

We must learn to innovate and take chances as never before.

We must emotionally get past our sector’s maddening fear of failure and its often archaic preconceptions of the marketplace, while resolving in the future to innovate incessantly and constantly seek better ways to produce better products.

risk taking 2But, above all, we must embrace the notion that, while we may now have a safety net beneath us, we also – for the first time ever – have no ceiling above us. And, inasmuch, if there was ever a time for shop owners, entrepreneurs, industrial visionaries and hands-on risk-takers from coast to coast to truly reach for the stars, it is now.

Because, for the first time in my life, my fellow manufacturers, I’m delighted to say failure is at long last an option.

3D Printing 2.0

3D printing 1There’s a good bet that by now you’ve started to wrap your brain around the, heretofore, almost otherworldly concept called additive manufacturing – commonly referred to in most lay circles as 3D printing.

In the version of that next-generation forging I’d bet is still floating around inside your head, a machine captures a digital image of an object and then adds layer after thin layer of synthetic glop onto itself until, when it’s completed, an entirely new product – and an exact replica of the original – is produced.

3D printing 2Well, if a team of engineers and scientists in Europe has its way, later this year that brand of 3D printing you’ve recently tried to come to grips with will prove to be just one more example of yesterday’s news.  Today, your see, there is an entirely new breed of additive manufacturing being developed in the world, and even in its earliest stages (and even in its roughest form) it is, just maybe, a microcosm of the very direction manufacturing will soon be taking.

Just over a week ago in the Netherlands, the principals at a startup specializing in 3D printing announced their intention to erect an entirely functional pedestrian footbridge across a small canal in the heart of Amsterdam using only two of the most basic and fundamental building blocks of the post-modernist’s imagination; robotics and additive manufacturing.

3D printing 3That’s right; not only will an entire bridge be built using 3D printing, but it will be built without any human interaction whatsoever, either at the construction or forging level.

But that’s only part what is so next-generation, so earth shaking and, ultimately, so newsworthy about this announcement.  Because the bridge will be built using a process called MX3D printing (which is also the name of the company), instead of layering synthetic resin onto itself to form a replica structure, it will be built by layering thin sheets of molten metal which, when hardened, will result in a fully operational and entirely safe metal span across the water.

What’s more, the robot doing the work is being developed to craft objects from any angle, rather than simply along a horizontal plane – which is now the case. As molten metal will flow through the robot’s nozzle, it will quickly set, which will allow a robotic arm to produce straight lines, spirals or any other shape for that matter, out of thin air.

So what’s the lesson for those of us with one foot in this new world and one foot in the old?  Heck, you name it.

If you’re an independent shop or factory owner, or even an executive with a larger manufacturing firm, you’d better see the writing on the wall and plan/budget accordingly.

If you’re a shop worker, or someone just entering the job market, you should read the tea leaves and realize that the next new wave of jobs will be entirely different than the jobs that exist today, and that rather than railing against robots, you might consider talking to your boss about getting trained to monitor, service and maintain them.

And finally, if you’re a designer or engineer, you might consider putting away many of your old design tools and wake up to this next generation of 3D product design, computer modeling and almost limitless possibilities.

Either way, my friends, whether we choose to get on board or not, the world many of us grew up in, and the one we have always known, continues to change at a staggering rate.

And like it or not, the next move is ours.