The characters below are all fictional, but they are based on many people I've met. Together, they illustrate attitudes at work in manufacturing today.
Al grew up in a semi-rural area—and stayed there. It's a sane, quiet place to live and raise a family. Not too long ago, a big manufacturer opened a plant in the area. Al knew nothing of manufacturing, but the company's training taught him what he needed to begin working in production. Now, he creates value every day; he works alongside other good people; and he earns a wage he's not sure he could match with any other employer in the area. His basic feeling toward this plant is gratitude.
Bob is a machinist in an industrial city. He has worked in three or four plants over the course of many years. He knows the work he does is good—his skills make metal into something meaningful—but the work can be trying. Uninformed, seemingly arbitrary decisions from people in offices can dramatically affect his job. And this row of machines looks the same every morning. He will discourage his children from choosing this line of work.
Carl has an idea. There is a product he's sure he can sell, but first he needs to produce it. A little investigation reveals that the necessary machine tools aren't all that expensive. Software makes the machines easy to program. Soon his first machine is making parts. Carl is on his way.
Dave wonders about the road not taken. His working life could have been much different. But the family business was too huge; its gravity pulled him in. Today, he's proud of the years he's spent running this shop and the many livelihoods he's helped to create and preserve. However, the business environment has changed. This business has become harder, tighter and colder in many ways. His own kids sense this; they certainly don't feel the same pull he did. So Dave will be the one to see the family business leave his family.
We who have an interest in U.S. manufacturing talk a lot about the need to bring a greater number of skilled and talented people into our industry. Measures for coaxing more students into this field from an early age are often cited as solutions.
In part, I love this idea. I love the notion of better communicating to students that there is a broader range of possibilities for them than just the narrow range of jobs that our society chooses to glamorize. The work of making things can be an honor, a challenge and a joy.
But I am also cautious, because of all of the people I've met who are like the ones above. While Al and Carl bring optimism to manufacturing, Bob and Dave are seeing the sun set. Out of these four, the two who were prepared for manufacturing from an early age are the ones who question the choice.
Manufacturing offers distinct advantages over other ways of making a living. Manufacturing work is real. It is confined to a place (a shop or a plant), so you can leave the work behind much better than you can in other fields. And how charming or persuasive you may be is much less relevant when the measure of success is how well and how quickly you can make the part.
But manufacturing work has distinct drawbacks, too. And even the advantages don't look like advantages to everyone.
In today's production environment, where networks, CNC capabilities and automation allow individuals to oversee more work than before, it may no longer be the raw volume of people that will determine our industry's dynamism and health. It may instead be the level of commitment and imagination that the industry can draw from those who do give themselves to the work. If that is the case, then too much focus on capturing prospective workers at the very beginning of adulthood may be misplaced. More commitment may come from those who make their way to manufacturing a little later on—even just a few years later on. That is, after they have had the chance to see how making things can contribute to the lives they want to lead, and the kinds of value they have come to sense that they were meant to create.