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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Business, Economy, Education, Featured, Science & Technology | 12 comments

The Real Problem With Manufacturing

0419_manufacture_630x420I spent my most working career in manufacturing.  Initially it was as a production operator but most of it as a manufacturing engineer.  I found both rewarding.  As the economy improves manufacturing is returning to the United States but there is a problem – the people who have customarily filled the manufacturing jobs are aging and retiring and the young people are not interested in manufacturing jobs.

A couple weeks ago, Daniel Grigg had two problems with the career fair he hosted at Greensboro Technical Community College, where it’s his job to get graduates on payrolls.

The first problem was theoretically a good one: He literally did not have enough space to host the number of factories with open positions for machinists, welder, and technicians. The second, though, has proved harder to solve: He doesn’t have enough people equipped to fill them.

Community colleges have the classes to train people for these well paying jobs, in the past I have taught such classes myself but they still have few takers.

But why has it been so hard to get students — both young and old — to act in their own financial self-interest? Well, Grigg says, manufacturing jobs just don’t sound that glamorous. “They want to do what you’re doing right now, or they want to be engineers,” he says. “I think part of it is a misconception of what manufacturing looks like in 2014, and I think there’s still a stigma about community colleges.”

My jobs in manufacturing were often not glamorous but always rewarding.  As an engineer I worked long hours but traveled throughout the United States, Japan and Europe.  The reward of producing a successful product was a thrill.  So is it just a PR problem?

The industry sure does looks a lot different these days. It’s typically clean and sanitary, with robots to do most of the heavy lifting and powerful machines instead of belching furnaces. But that image hasn’t translated to the young people looking for jobs in a tough economy — or perhaps more importantly, their parents, who might have learned from hard experience that manufacturing jobs disappear and a four-year college degree is the only sure route to the middle class.

“One of the difficulties is helping people understand our labor market demand,” says Ann Franz, executive director of the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, which is funded through a federal workforce development program. “Parents really need to understand, ‘What are the jobs available in our area, so I can counsel my child on what occupations that will allow you to find a job on the other end?'”

I suspect there are several issues here.  The first is perhaps many of these young people have seen their parents lose their manufacturing jobs to outsourcing.  Another is perhaps they hear about those in finance making millions of dollars a year.  Or perhaps the have just given up.

Edited: I changed “all of my working career ” to “most of my working career” since I did work for the DIA for four years.