Greetings From Paris

A recent bicycle adventure with my wife took me to Paris—Paris, Michigan, that is. It's a small town in Mecosta County in west-central Lower Michigan.

A recent bicycle adventure with my wife took me to Paris—Paris, Michigan, that is. It's a small town in Mecosta County in west-central Lower Michigan. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the population of the entire county is more than 40,000, and from the looks of it, Paris cannot make up much of that total.

But the town does have one significant attraction. It comes complete with an Eiffel Tower: a 15-foot-high replica near the fish hatchery in the county park, perfectly built for climbing. From a distance it looks much like its more renowned big brother, but without the traffic. As I moved closer, however, I saw a small plaque just below eye level.

As far as I could tell, out of a hundred or so people who approached the replica in the half hour I was there, I was the only one to take a close look at that plaque. It told a story I wish others had read. It told of the origins of this Eiffel Tower, saying it was built in 1980 by the welding students in the Chippewa Hills School District, the district that serves this area. The plaque recognized the students who worked on the project, as well as their instructor.

The plaque had become weathered to the point that I couldn't read it from more than a few inches away. A number of thoughts and questions went through my head as I read the plaque a second time. I wondered where these people are now. I calculated that the students are probably in their early 40s. Have they made a career out of their skills? Were they once employed in manufacturing but have now turned elsewhere for their life work because of plant closures, loss of work or other factors? Have they taken their kids and their friends' kids to show them their work and explain to them the sense of accomplishment one gets from making something? Did they explain that a good career can come along with this sense of pride?

I also thought about the instructor. Is he still teaching? Has he or did he keep the program alive, perhaps single-handedly, through his dedication and persistence despite attempts to close it because of its cost, the lack of students, budget cuts, the desire to go high tech, or all of the above? If he was successful in keeping the program alive, did it die with his retirement, as so many other programs across the country have? Has he kept track of students he mentored to see how many of them have successful careers in manufacturing?

I also thought of that small, gritty plaque. Does it symbolize how people think of manufacturing in our country today—small, dirty and insignificant, with everyone passing it by without even a glance? Children climbed on the "tower" and adults admired it, but I'm willing to bet very few thought about what went into making it.

As I walked away, I thought about the many challenges all of us in manufacturing face today. Plant closings, work going offshore, onerous government regulations, customer requirements, cost concessions, and raw material and energy costs, to name a few. Lost in all of this is the workforce issue that was so critical in the mid to late 90s, but barely is on the radar today.

As business improves for manufacturing —and most data indicate it is improving—will the need for more people and more skills intensify? Is manufacturing positioned from a workforce perspective to grow as demand increases? Have the people who built the Eiffel Tower replica been encouraged and motivated to keep up with new technologies to meet the needs of 2004 and beyond, or are their skills stuck in the 80s? Perhaps more importantly, do they have any children who want to make a similar contribution?

These are the questions facing us as business improves. Is it too late to re-emphasize career awareness and workforce development to meet the needs of the next 10 years? The mid and late 90s were painful from a workforce perspective. Let's get busy now to avoid that pain in the future.