Re-Branding a Career Path

In the advertising world, they call it a brand; that is, the relationship between a consumer and a particular person, place or thing.

Given that, I can’t help but feel that one of the fundamental building blocks of our nation’s economy is in dire need of re-branding.

After all, ask most kids in America what they’d like to do when they grow up, and how many do you think would actually say, “Gee, I’d really like to someday make garden tractors, or silicon chips, or universal joints?”

You’re wrong.  It’s a lot less than that.

Yet, as one of the only solid (and growing) sectors of the U.S. economy, and one that is, in the opinion of most, as critical as any, doesn’t it stand to reason that for groups like teens and minorities, who are experiencing the most widespread unemployment since the Great Depression, a career in manufacturing should be considered the professional equivalent of winning the lottery?

But it’s not.  Today, few kids in this country see manufacturing as a viable career choice.

Why?   Because for the past 50 years in America, the ability to make things has rarely been given its proper due.  In that time, we’ve come to covet careers in law, medicine or business.  We’ve placed a premium on the ability to sell or advertise products, or for that matter, vague concepts.  We’ve even been willing to pay top dollar to people good at accounting or public relations.

But the ability to build something durable and lasting? Something like a motorcycle or a chain saw?  That was always factory work; grunt work; the type of work only done by people incapable of anything better.

In fact, for as long as I can remember, we’ve been willing to pay someone more for selling a motorcycle than building one.

But all that is starting to change.

As I’ve said a number of times, American manufacturing is entering into a whole new era.  What had once been a low-tech field offering thousands of low-skilled jobs to workers often interested in trading time for money, has become incredibly technology-reliant and desperate for talented and motivated workers with clearly defined skills.

In fact, if you ask my peers — that is, owners of small-to-midsized U.S.-based manufacturing plants — about the biggest problem they face, many will tell you it’s finding skilled workers.

The problem is, most kids don’t that.  Nor do they know that manufacturing today is less about tedium and grunt work than it is about engineering, innovation and the willingness to dig down deep and help your employer compete globally.

I bring this up because last week I read an article in the New York Times about how trade schools in this country are facing a funding crisis, and how many such schools might be forced to close.

That’s crazy.  Did you know that in this country 70% of all high school graduates go to college, yet less than 40% of all Americans in their mid-twenties now hold even a two-year degree?

What does that mean?  It means that for any number of reasons, many kids who’ve been spoon-fed this “college for all” myth, are now finding themselves unqualified for either the white collar career they’d been programmed to want, or the blue collar career they could have once had.

Add to that the demands being placed on job candidates by employers like myself, and what you have is a crisis of skills.  So many kids who could have (and should have) gone to trade school, have instead wasted years of their lives and thousands of dollars, only to learn that college wasn’t for them.

So what should we manufacturers do?

We should completely re-invent ourselves to the young people of America .  We should launch an advertising and information campaign that will turn a career in manufacturing into something it’s not been for nearly a century: namely, sexy.

We should what the U.S. Army did.  Or the Pork Producers.  Or the Dairy Council.

We should take what had been long-thought-of as one thing by the general public and re-brand it as another.

The Army was once a career choice only by kids who had no choice.  Now, millions of young people from all walks of life look at the Army as a great way to learn the kind of technical skills and personal discipline employers in the private sector crave.

Pork?  Heck, the former fatty, artery-clogging barbecue staple is now a staple of healthy eaters everywhere who believe they’re eating “the other white meat.”

And four decade’s worth of relentless advertising and an incredibly imaginative campaign have instilled in milk almost as much cache as many fine wines.

In other words, deep-rooted public perceptions can be changed.   But turning around a ship as massive as this country’s generations-old attitude toward manufacturing is going to take time, relentlessness, and a measure of blind faith.

Do I think we manufacturers can do it?

Absolutely.

Do I think we’ll even try?

That, my friends, is the $64,000 question.

9 Comments to “Re-Branding a Career Path”

  1. ron painter 14 July 2011 at 7:50 am #

    Perry: I really enjoyed your blog on the “numbers” gap between the reality of manf jobs and their quality. No industry is the panacea that I think folks here hope for. Not surprisingly when I had the occasion to be talking about manufacturing to some folks on Capitol Hill the other day, one of the points I made was the bad rap that manf has with kids. One of my former Board members who was in manf told me that less than 1/2 his workforce thought it was a good career choice for their kids. Not much encouragement at home for kids. In running manf businesses and looking at labor market data, we may see opportunity but if young people making career choices won’t consider it, our view is for naught.

    Please check out http://www.nawb.org and let me know how you think we could help.

    ron painter – CEO/NAWB

    • Perry Sainati 14 July 2011 at 10:26 am #

      Ron: Thanks so much for the comments and the insight. I really do believe we’re doing both our sector and our kids a disservice by not instilling in the next generation of American workers a greater appreciation for not only a life in manufacturing, but the nobility of being able to actually make things with your hands.

      Ultimately, everything comes down to money, and I understand that. And in time, I have no doubt that many more kids will see that manufacturing pays. But in the meantime, we need to build qualitative equity in our sector of the economy. People, particularly our children and theirs, need to be taught respect for the men and women in this country who build things. A respect, frankly, that a lot of people my age have never really learned.

      I’ll be sure to check out your site, Ron. Thanks again for your commments. And I will be in touch shortly.

  2. Kyle Thill 14 July 2011 at 10:20 am #

    The problem has so many layers it is difficult to try to understand or give weight to them all. I think you hit on a great idea. Get people talking now about the possibilities, and focus on starting at the level of the HS counselor, and work out from there.

    If you can’t get the young emotionally involved in this quest, you’re work will be made more difficult.

    • Perry Sainati 14 July 2011 at 11:28 am #

      Kyle: Thanks for the comments. It is, indeed, a big undertaking. But it can be done. It just needs to start, like you say, at the high school level. And guidance counselors would make a great target audience for manufacturing’s re-branding message.

      I hope you’ll keep reading and keep commenting when the mood strikes.

  3. Michael Smith 15 July 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    Great blog. I remember visiting the Cadillac plant in Detroit on a school field trip. That really had an impact on me. (As did the Diego Rivera mural of an assembly line in the Detroit Institute of Arts lobby.) Maybe we can get the kids even younger than technical school? I know Greenville, SC just opened an engineering-based elementary school. I don’t know if I have an answer here but I was hooked at an early age. I know other kids could be too.

  4. HTECbertmaes 18 July 2011 at 1:04 am #

    Excellent post, Perry and good thought, Michael.

    I wrote a post on that called “[Research] Start STEM education way earlier: from 5 through 9 years! http://bit.ly/aRqKhg

    “Our current pattern in formal science education is focused on 14-16-year-olds. By this point, however, we have entirely missed the optimal learning period for children, and the optimal moment to get young people attracted to science, engineering and manufacturing. The period from kindergarten through 4th grade is “a peak window of opportunity for teaching basic science concepts.”

    According to Bayer – regardless of gender, race or ethnicity – interest in STEM begins in early childhood. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents say they first became interested in science by age 11. http://bit.ly/pQDlYE

    From the article The Future of Manufacturing is in the 3rd Grade: “It appeals to students with hands-on, project-based courses where students have fun while applying the fundamentals of science. (…) Students learned to make cars out of paper, catapults out of mouse traps and robots using computer software.” http://bit.ly/qzDOZe

    • Perry Sainati 18 July 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      Bert: Would love to talk to you about this at greater length, and perhaps reprint one of your STEM posts on my blog site. You’re clearly a man whose interests run parallel to my own. I’ll reach out to you via your site, to discuss a number of things, including back-links to each others’ blog.

  5. […] was reading Perry Sainati’s recent blog on getting our children interested in careers in manufacturing and it got me thinking about how my […]

  6. hobart welders 30 October 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    Great stuff!


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