The Like-New Generation

The machining trade can be a counter-cultural, counter-career choice for someone who has already tried a different vocation.

Columns From: 9/26/2008 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Who are the best prospects for manufacturing careers today? I wonder.

With fewer young people choosing manufacturing trades, machining facilities are increasingly looking to home-grown programs for developing skilled employees internally. As internal training of this sort becomes more common, what kinds of prospects will shops most readily embrace for this investment?

Some will be young people. That is, recent high school graduates who see this kind of paid, goal-oriented training as preferable to institutional education.

However, I think plenty of others will be slightly older applicants who have had time to consider that modern manufacturing may be just the kind of work that suits them.

It’s likely that the worst misperceptions of manufacturing are past—or at least passing. Parents laid off from manufacturing plants in the 1980s are now grandparents, and their children do not possess the same dark view of manufacturing with which to ward their own children away. Indeed, the lean, technology-invested manufacturing facilities of today are dramatically different from the plants of the past. Even so, manufacturing continues to struggle at attracting talent.

Part of the disadvantage has to do with a word I debated using in the first sentence. The word is "career." Young people contemplating their working lives are encouraged to think in terms of "career" in a particular sense—not just worthy and remunerative work, but also a sort of self-definition through work, a personal trajectory of organizational distinctions and accomplishments. Manufacturing work does not necessarily look like this. It involves real and significant challenges, but the work is mainly characterized by simply making measurable value on each and every day.

The emphasis on "career path" professions sends many people down the wrong occupational roads. In choosing their work, some do not adequately pause to consider the native abilities they have—and satisfaction they feel—at making useful objects with their minds and hands. For a person such as this, going back to school is not an attractive option, but entering a company’s paid internal training program may be.

Manufacturing trades don’t necessarily ask the cliché corporate question, "Where do you want to be in 5 years?" Instead, they say, "Look at the value you added today." Machine shop personnel get to gage (literally) just how much value they do deliver each day—after which they can leave the parts behind them and go home. Favoring these sorts of benefits in a profession is somewhat counter-cultural, which is why more mature employees may be better able to appreciate them.

Manufacturing facilities will continue to find staff. However, many facilities will take on increasingly greater roles in employee development. When they do, I am convinced the new generation of manufacturing employees will include a subset—a "like-new" generation—that consists of people wise enough to have discovered that manufacturing is where they really ought to be.

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