Want a Good Manufacturing Job? Stay in School.

Skills Gap 3The stories are anything but apocryphal. They’re as real as real can get.

Throughout this country, even as Donald Trump continues to boldly promise to bring manufacturing jobs back from distant shores, tens of thousands of high-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs remain open, begging for qualified men and women to fill them.

Why? Because so many of the same factory workers who’ve been relegated to the sidelines as globalization, technology and automation have changed the very face, shape and nature of manufacturing no longer possess even the most basic skills required to perform them.

Training and development business education concept with a hand holding a group of gears transfering the wheels of knowledge to a human head made of cogs as a symbol of acquiring the tools for career learning.

Today’s manufacturing, you see, is less about physical talents than it is about mental ones. It is less likely to require a specific knowledge of, say, tool-and-die making than it is a deep understanding of (and comfort with) computers, software and all kinds of management, design, modeling and/or production programs.

When the German engineering giant Siemens held a job fair recently in North Carolina to try to fill some 800 positions, over 10,000 showed up. The problem was, only 15% of those wanna-be employees were able to pass a reading, writing and math test developed by the company to target those with roughly a ninth grade education level.

That Siemens plant produces gas turbines. And, because the nature of how gas turbines get manufactured these days, Siemens knew it needed a certain type of worker with a specific aptitude and set of skills – a type of worker that these days, sadly, is becoming a rare and highly coveted commodity.

Skills Gap 5And, as I said, such stories are anything but apocryphal. They’re real. They’re prevalent. And, perhaps most unsettling, they’re increasing in both frequency and regularity.

Though many, including our own president, have apparently not yet gotten the memo, the days of dropping out of high school and landing a career-worthy job with the local smokestack manufacturer have gone the way of the transistor radio, the nickel candy bar, and Pac-Man. Today, if you want even a basic job on a shop floor, you sure as heck better have the mental agility and computer skills to put yourself into consideration for it.

Skills Gap 6As Eric Spiegel, Siemens’ retired president and CEO, said about his company’s operations around the globe, including its turbine plant in the Carolinas, “In our factories, there’s a computer about every 20 or 30 feet. People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.”

Even beyond the core facility, the same understanding holds true.

In John Deere, for example, the company’s hundreds of dealerships around the country are routinely tasked with the maintenance and repair of millions of dollars worth of high-end farm, construction and earth moving equipment. As a result, all available jobs in Deere’s service centers require so much more than garage mechanics of a generation ago. As Andy Winnett, who directs a training program for the company at a community college in Washington, told the New York Times, “The toolbox is now a computer.”

Skills Gap 4Indeed, even as Mr. Trump continues to toss about sound bytes about the demise of American factory jobs, a study by Ball State University reveals that 9 out of 10 of all factory jobs lost in the U.S. since 2000 have been lost, not to foreign workers or cheap labor, but to automation.

And, as you might expect, that’s a much messier and far less politically compelling tidbit for a presidential stump speech.

Yet, even all that messiness has not managed to pour cold water on the president’s inflammatory and isolationist rhetoric. Even now, President Trump has just signed an executive order to rework the H-1B U.S. visa program, a program designed to give companies – especially those that, like many manufactures, require a highly trained and technically proficient workforce – access to the most qualified foreign workers.

Skills Gap 2I have been trying to make this point for years, and it’s one I will repeat yet again. The crisis in manufacturing is not an erosion of jobs. It’s an erosion of skills. It is an encroaching and ever-increasing gap between what we factory owners want and need in a worker and what so many of candidates nowadays are capable of providing.

This leaky ship can certainly be righted. But in the end, it’s ultimately not up to shop owners and hirers to do the heavy lifting. It’s up to America’s workers and the thousands of men and women who populate our factory and shop payrolls.

It reminds me a bit of that line from the Shawshank Redemption about every man (and woman) has to choose. He can either “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Engineer Teaching Apprentices To Use Computerized Lathe

Every American factory worker today – former, current and future – has a choice. Right here. Right now. And it’s pretty simple and straightforward.

He (or she) can choose to jump on the manufacturing train that’s rapidly pulling away from the station and make skill development job #1. Or, as so many American workers continue to choose to do, he can bury his head in the sand and spend the rest of his life wondering where the heck his career, his life, and his once-bright future just went.




SkyART: Mining for Genius in the Inner City

Tim CookIt’s not like Tim Cook is running Apple into the ground. For the time being anyway, the company is more than holding its own.

But let’s never forget, Tim Cook remains a classic right brainer. Tim Cook is not a creator, or a visionary, or much of a dreamer. As he’s proven time and time again since the death of his almost mythic predecessor, Tim Cook is one who likes to color within the lines, and Tim Cook is a man who focuses on things he can see, touch and, in particular, tally.

He’s a corporate leader, in other words, concerned less with creating new breakthrough products for Apple than riding the momentum of the ones already on his shelves.

Steve Jobs 2That was the utter brilliance of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was apparently prickly as all get-go. Steve Jobs could be demanding, and distant, and abrupt, and a little quixotic. But Steve Jobs was creative. And Steve Jobs was a man with a right brain as well-developed, inquisitive and in full blossom as, perhaps, any corporate leader in the history of American business.

For that reason, and unlike Tim Cook, Jobs biggest priority at Apple was not sales and marketing. It was new product development and breakthrough innovation, both of them wrapped in an alluring combination of ease-of-use and sleekness-of-design.

Because Steve Jobs knew that with those things as Apple’s North Star, sales and marketing would always follow.

In my sector (and for good reason, mind you) many have been consumed of late with what has become an acronym so popular it now threatens to eclipse the word it replicates. To many, STEM now means Science, Technology, Engineering and Math even more than it means the neck of a flower blossom or a small protrusion from a tree limb.

MFG 4.0To such people, STEM has become their North Star, their one laser-like focus to which all others ultimately pay fealty.

But what STEM fails to take into account is simple, unapologetic and irrepressible creativity; creativity in function, creativity in design, and creativity in integration.

Because, like it or not, STEM is solely a left-brain phenomenon. STEM, taken alone, is more about numbers than it is ideas, concepts, or possibilities. And while STEM, taken alone, might develop a complex algorithm capable of calculating the incalculable, STEM will never be able to paint the Mona Lisa or compose Beethoven’s Fifth.

I believe wholeheartedly in the balance between the development of any child’s right and left brain, both of them in equal measure. I believe that focusing on STEM is critical in today’s educational environment, but no more so that teaching a child to not simply play an instrument or maybe draw a picture, but to appreciate and find beauty in the art those two disciplines make possible.

Kids MfgBecause life has taught me that’s where genius lies, in the matrix of those two sides of the human brain. Genius, far more often than not, dwells in the mind of a child whose right brain is just as developed and stimulated as his left. That’s the matrix (and the educational system, in fact) that produced both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

That’s why I have become an ardent supporter of an ambitious but otherwise unassuming program in my hometown called SkyART. SkyART is an initiative designed to bring visual arts training to at-risk young men and women in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Because, as is always the case in any poor (or dangerously underfunded) public school, the very first thing to go is the arts department.

SkyARTAnd, for my money, there is no surer way to keep the insidious cycle of poverty that grips so many of our cities intact than to create generations of poor students who’ve never been schooled in the arts; a educational philosophy designed to teach our poorest children creative thinking, creative questioning and, most importantly, creative problem-solving.

This week, my company hosted a couple groups of students who toured our shop and spoke with employees about what they do for a living. They weren’t necessarily kids from SkyART. They were just school-age kids from the city whose eyes we’re trying to open, if only a touch, to the joys and wonders of a job in what has rapidly become America’s most exciting (and, frankly, misunderstood) sector.

And we had them in because we wanted to show them proof that, when it comes to skill development, career growth, and job opportunities, these days manufacturing takes a back seat to no sector in the economy.

SkyART 2But having those students in put me in mind of SkyART, and reminded me of why I initially became so enamored with it and began to support it so fervently. So, while this essay may read like a shameless plug for the program, it’s really just a heartfelt explanation for why a bold initiative designed to expose the arts to poor kids has become so near and dear to my heart (and, for that matter, near and dear to my business).

Kids Mfg 2Because SkyART (and other programs like it) dares to teach creativity to young minds thirsty for a sip of it; minds who might otherwise never be exposed to creativity’s uncanny role in the process of changing lives, creating new products and, in the end, solving society’s most vexing problems.

STEM is critical, make no mistake – especially in my world. But focusing on STEM at the exclusion of the arts is like trying to teach a child to run a race on one leg – and then fully expecting him or her to win it.

Steve JobsCreativity, on the other hand, is a mental acuity that when combined with the power of STEM can one day (and often when one least expects it) blossom into full blown genius.

And – particularly when it comes to the development, design, and manufacturing of industrial products, such as those my shop sets out to create everyday – I’ll take Steve Jobs over Tim Cook every time.

(To learn more about SkyART, or to support the program, please click here.)


President Trump and the New Manufacturing

Trump 1Like most Americans, I’ve been watching the first two weeks of the Trump administration with a curious mixture of fascination, hope and concern.

I’m fascinated watching a man who’s never done a day of public service in his life perform after he woke up one morning to discover he’s suddenly the most influential civil servant in the country.

And while his two executive decrees – the one banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and the one mandating we begin building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – seem astonishingly reactionary and half-baked, I remain cautiously hopeful.

I’m hopeful, despite the ham-fisted way his administration rolled out the ban on Muslim refugees, that he can bring about meaningful change in Washington – without, of course, having that change (or his odd, ego-fueled, and now obvious personality tics) lead our economy down too many rabbit holes.  After all, our national economy has been growing gradually and steadily for eight years running.

Trump 2But my guarded optimism aside, I cannot help but feel deeply concerned that, based on the man’s bombastic and ready-fire-aim rhetoric, Mr. Trump seems to understand precious little about the very same American manufacturing he promises to return to prominence.

I’ve been writing in this space for six years now that that tide has been shifting for a while, and that manufacturing is already returning. (Those who study such things have been calling the phenomenon “re-shoring.”)  The problem is, so much of what is returning is doing so because in the industrial sector automation and robotics have replaced many of our most repetitive and lowest-skilled factory jobs.

Manufacturing is coming back, in other words. Manufacturing jobs are not – at least not the ones the president seems intent on saving. It’s another one of those times in which Mr. Trump’s lack of specific knowledge and his infamous disinterest in even the most basic of details promise to derail his otherwise noble intentions.

Trump 3I’m concerned as well that he has no idea what “Made in America” even means – if only because so many of us in the sector don’t understand it either.  After all, if Volkswagen in Georgia continues to employ fulltime 3,000 U.S. citizens, are those workers assembling an American-made car or a German one?

I’m very concerned that globalization is happening, and that we have only two choices in that regard; we can either leverage it to our benefit, or – in the name of protectionism – we can close ranks, impose hefty tariffs, and then watch as China, Japan, India, Brazil, the EU and the like impose reciprocal tariffs on all American goods. Then we’ll all be forced to suffer the consequences as countries quickly (and gladly) fill the global void created as hundreds, if not thousands, of customers of small U.S. shops like mine start pursuing cheaper, tariff-free alternatives.

And speaking of small shops, I’m worried too that given the president’s apparent 1970’s view of manufacturing, he has yet to realize that many of the one-time sprawling, belching, behemoths of 20th Century American industry, the ones that exist in his mind, have been supplanted by a new generation of lean, agile and market-specific specialty manufacturers.

Trump 6And I’m worried the president – who, as a candidate, echoed the “drill baby drill” cry of the fringe right, and promised to bring back a coal industry whose product, practices and technologies all date back to the 19th Century – doesn’t realize most manufacturers (large and small) have begun weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, including natural gas and nuclear, and are already migrating toward cleaner, more sustainable, and far more efficient fuel sources, knowing such cost-effective energy sources are not only better for our planet, they’re better for our bottom line.

I guess, to sum up, what I’m really trying to say is I hope our president has a successful run. I hope, as he promised, he strengthens our economy and creates jobs. And I hope too he is able to run interference for all U.S. manufacturers and help small, thriving and independent shops like mine grow and prosper.

Trump 5But, that said, I hope Mr. Trump comes armed with more than what’s he’s shown so far.

I hope he has at least a few tangible and workable solutions in his back pocket.

I hope he’s got ideas for a stimulus package or two that will spur companies like mine to invest in ourselves and evolve as the technology the defines us evolves.

And, finally, I hope he develops a broader and deeper understanding of the marketplace, a hyper-competitive and often borderless world in which innovation, ideas and efficiencies are currencies that promise never to lose value.

Trump 4But I remain concerned.  Because, at least after these first few weeks, it seems we’re being led by a man willing to venture into the global marketplace armed with little more than a few wafer-thin promises, a rear view mirror, and a time machine he still wants to believe exists.