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4/2/2002 | 7 MINUTE READ

Image Is Everything

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Over and over again, companies say they cannot find enough skilled workers. But manufacturing has a larger problem that few in the industry realize is directly related to the lack of skilled workers.

Over and over again, companies say they cannot find enough skilled workers. But manufacturing has a larger problem that few in the industry realize is directly related to the lack of skilled workers. Manufacturing has an image problem, so it's no wonder it has difficulty finding skilled workers.

A recent study conducted in Minnesota (the home of 3M) found that only 34 percent of the people surveyed could name a single manufacturing company in the state. And when manufacturing does come to mind, it is not a 21st century image.

"When people think of manufacturing, too often many think smokestacks, dirty, hot, unskilled workers, assembly line," said Melissa DeBilzan of Manufacturing Technology of Minnesota (MTM), an organization that is working to change this perception. "It's no wonder students are not going into manufacturing, if that's what parents think."

The picture of manufacturing that often comes to mind is the one from 50 years ago—a man in oily coveralls carrying a wrench—not the image of a clean, well-lit CNC shop such as the one shown on this page.

There is a social aspect to this outdated stereotype as well. "I think the American dream of each generation doing better plays a significant role in this perception," said Larry Wohl, professor of economics and management at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota. "Historically, the dream has meant [doing] better economically, but it seems to be evolving into more of a concern about social status. Anything that requires you to get dirty, or to sweat, or to wear a uniform seems to be held in low regard, while jobs requiring a business suit and sitting behind a desk are viewed as good jobs."

Part of the American dream for parents is for their children to aim higher by going to college. "The U.S. Labor Department still forecasts that the skill requirements of the job market for the foreseeable future will not require more than about 30 percent of our workforce to have completed four-year college degrees," says Mr. Wohl. "There are plenty of high-paying jobs with outstanding career paths that do not require a four-year college degree, but a lot of them are considered unattractive to many kids and their parents."

Another reason for the perception problem is that parents who do know something about manufacturing remember the instability and layoffs of twenty years ago. "In the 1980s, we laid off so many people who are now the parents of today's students. So they have a bad taste in their mouths about manufacturing, and typically steer their sons and daughters away from these types of careers," saiys Dave Horn, Continuous Improvement Director for AMT—The Association For Manufacturing Technology.

Unfortunately, parents haven't seen the tremendous growth manufacturing has undergone in recent years, because much of it is taking place in faceless industrial parks around the country.

On the positive side, the manufacturing industry has done a great deal to support the training of needed workers. There are hundreds of technical schools and training centers that are preparing machinists for future job openings. The problem is recruiting qualified and interested candidates for the schools.

"A lot of educators, and even parents, have this feeling that these types of manufacturing training programs are for students on the verge of dropping out of school," said Mr. Horn.

On the contrary, for kids who are bright but not motivated, these programs might be just what they need. CNC machining is not for dummies. Reading a blueprint alone requires a variety of skills, including the math skills that are essential to all aspects of being a machinist. Setting up a job and learning what tools and materials are needed for a particular part requires not only a good mind (and the willingness to use it), but also close attention to detail. And, of course, programming takes every skill mentioned here and then some.

Parents see their children's high interest in computers and the Internet, and encourage them to pursue high-tech careers. Few realize just how much technology and computers are used in manufacturing today. So the misconceptions will continue unless manufacturers work together to develop a better image. "We definitely need to attract higher-caliber talent, but because we have this image of sweat equity giving you your wage, we have a recruiting mismatch," said Ms. Steinwell, MTM board president and owner of Steinwell, Inc., a Minnesota injection molding company.

This mismatch is stated in the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics 2002 Occupational Outlook Handbook: "Many young people with the necessary educational and personal qualifications needed to obtain machining skills may prefer to attend college or may not wish to enter production-related occupations."

The answer to the image problem is clear: manufacturers must work together to create a better image and build awareness of the industry. Fortunately, there are some success stories as manufacturers work with educators and marketing specialists to develop a distinct and attractive image.

One such success is Manufacturing Technology of Minnesota, a non-profit organization that is working to promote the industry to students. One of the first changes recommended was to call precision manufacturing by a better name.

"Manufacturing technology has a broader, more appealing ring to it than precision manufacturing. It's sexier, for lack of a better word," said Ms. DeBilzan.

MTM (www.ToMakeIt.org) is promoting manufacturing technology statewide through the slogan, "Make It! In Manufacturing Technology," with print ads, indoor billboards and promotions to students, including brochures and posters.

When the Minnesota state legislature provided funds to the state colleges and universities to better serve the manufacturing industry, the industry responded by pointing out that the educational system was doing a good job preparing workers. The problem was that there were not enough people going to the schools. So MTM was created as an awareness campaign for manufacturing technology.

One of MTM's most successful efforts to date has been a print advertising campaign for students featuring the line, "I Make It and I Fly It!" The colorful ad, as shown below, features an airplane manufactured in northern Minnesota and a job description detailing the positive aspects of manufacturing technology. The ad, part one of a three-part series, was published in Student Paths, a career-guidance newspaper for high school students. More than 500 students responded, asking for more information about manufacturing technology.

MTM also facilitates relationships between schools and local manufacturers. "We have a hand in both industries—education and manufacturing. Our job is to try to join them and get them to communicate," said Ms. DeBilzan, who helps arrange tours of manufacturing facilities for schools and schedule manufacturers to speak with students about manufacturing technology.

Another positive approach to changing the perception of manufacturing comes from Danville, Illinois, where the Vermilion Advantage Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is working as liaison between educators and industry.

"Individual companies tried to do individual things but were not successful," said Vicki Stewart, president and CEO of EDC. "We took a different approach and asked, What will help all of us—educators and manufacturers?"

The Danville Area Manufacturing Cluster is a group of general and metals manufacturing companies that have come together with educators as a single voice to raise community awareness about manufacturing and career opportunities.

"Team Manufacturing: Creators and Inventors" became the tag line for a campaign of billboard and other advertisements promoting the teamwork and creativity needed in manufacturing. The EDC continues to create radio and cable TV ads promoting manufacturing technology. There is also a profile published every Sunday in the local newspaper about a person in the manufacturing industry, and the need for more people in the specific line of work. EDC created a video entitled Iron Will, showing jobs in manufacturing, which went to every career center and high school in the county.

The EDC worked to develop three programs: a 6-week program at the local community college to develop basic manufacturing technology skills, a manufacturing technology academy at a high school, and a math and science program for elementary schools. Cluster participants realized they needed to shape the young minds of the community toward manufacturing before they could be corrupted by misconceptions about the industry.

A key to success was the EDC's leadership and footwork. "None of the manufacturers had the time to keep it moving, says Ms. Stewart. "We have served as the advocate, and we keep them up to speed instead of bothering them with lots of board meetings where nothing is accomplished."

According to Ms. Stewart, the cluster is still going strong despite the economic slowdown, adding eight more manufacturers in the past year. "Manufacturing will only go away if we let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy," she says.