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.
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.
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.”
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?
Do I think we’ll even try?
That, my friends, is the $64,000 question.
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