Manufacturing deserves a better image. Showing the truth about the sophistication of modern manufacturing work is worth doing (see this related article). However, the more I think about the effect of this image on manufacturing employment, the more I think that another image problem might be every bit as significant. When students shy away from manufacturing-related career paths, is this because of a view of manufacturing, or is it because of a view of something broader?
In recent years, companies of all stripes have failed and foundered. Contractions and staff cuts by employers have been commonplace across various industries—in manufacturing and beyond. However, in manufacturing, professionals are particularly vulnerable to companies’ fates. To put it simply, manufacturing professions need companies. A machinist needs a machine tool. A manufacturing engineer usually needs a plant. Compare that with law, accounting, media and plumbing—to name a few diverse fields. In any of these fields, the professional could conceivably hang out his or her own shingle, seeking a living even when there is no good employer to be found. By contrast, a CNC machinist could not do the same without first laying out a significant capital investment.
This reality, which is not likely to be lost on young people serious enough to be planning careers, creates an additional hurdle against attracting committed talent. Consider that the teenager today has lived in times of high economic insecurity for more than half of his or her life. For this young person, the safest assumption—right or wrong—is to expect that companies will keep unraveling, and that any job might easily disappear. Therefore, the better fields to pursue are those in which the professional might be able to keep his or her footing if need be, doing without any employer from time to time over the extent of a career.
This perception of corporate decline, and the environment that perception produces, affects even the manufacturers whose credibility as employers remains high. In the past, employers could expect future employees to pursue and finance their own training in the hope of good and stable jobs. Today, if that hope now seems less reasonable, then it is also less reasonable to expect that employees will make this investment.
What a manufacturer does about this situation will differ from one company to the next. The answer might involve supporting a local trade school program,and also being seen to routinely hire from that program. It might involve the company adding an HR position tasked with recruiting employees who have manufacturing aptitudes, but not necessarily formal skills. Or, the answer might involve bringing manufacturing instruction into the company, thereby insourcing a function that manufacturers outsourced long ago.
It is hard to see how costs such as these can be avoided today. Students now have good reason not to count on traditional jobs. This is a problem with companies, not manufacturing—but manufacturing suffers the most for it.