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.
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.
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.
As 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.”
Indeed, 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.
I 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.”
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.