The Gathering Cool

For those who aren’t fortunate enough to embody it the way I do, “coolness” can be an elusive phenomenon. Certain ironies are what make it so elusive.

For those who aren’t fortunate enough to embody it the way I do, “coolness” can be an elusive phenomenon.

Certain ironies are what make it so elusive. It is the hardest to achieve for those who work hardest to get it. And those who would try to label something as cool can render it immediately uncool through the very act of this pronouncement.

That’s why the effort to champion the notion of manufacturing’s coolness has always faced an uphill battle.

And yet, I think something is happening. Forget the term “cool,” if you wish. I think there may be a fresh and genuine interest in manufacturing stirring within many who wouldn’t have given a second thought to manufacturing in the past.

I don’t have any formal evidence for this, just a sense. Maybe I am vastly premature. But here are a couple of things I see.

First, there is television. In one of Mark Albert’s recent columns, he alluded to the reality TV show whose stars work at machine tools. This show is one of a variety on the air right now that portray making something as part of the drama.

Then, more importantly, there are the people. In just the past year or two, I’ve met various energetic and creative people who have found rewarding work in manufacturing after coming to it from unrelated fields. One consequence of today’s more intuitive CNC technology is that it now takes less experience for someone to be able to put it to use in imaginative ways.

Again, all I have is a sense. But the timeworn impressions of manufacturing are now so inaccurate that it shouldn’t take much to shake them off. The idea that manufacturing work is repetitive, for example, is falsified by the level of automation used routinely in manufacturing today. Just as false is the idea that manufacturing is impersonal. Even in a large production facility today, the staff of people who command all of that automated equipment is relatively small. The power of personal ingenuity and initiative is more important to the success of a manufacturing business today than ever before.

And then there are the alternatives, many of which haven’t changed to the same extent that manufacturing has. Back when manufacturing did rely on larger staffs and a lot more repetitive labor, the sort of work done in distant offices far removed from production had a certain appeal. However, what some people have since discovered is that the work that is detached from how and where things are made often doesn’t feel so valuable. In offices, there are the meetings to attend, the egos to salve and the perceptions of value to create. Manufacturing work is not free of these considerations by any means, but it does emphasize a solid and tangible measure of success. In the end, either you did or did not make the part to spec, and either you did or did not deliver the job on time. What could be cooler than that?

The matter isn’t frivolous. An industry, like a nation, needs to find its next generation in the children who grow up within it and in the immigrants who arrive from without. That first source, children following their parents, has produced many of the successful manufacturing business leaders today, but many of those second-generation leaders will not be passing their career paths or their businesses on to a third generation. American manufacturing therefore will need to attract some new leaders from outside, people who might not otherwise have chosen this field. And I think that very force of attraction is beginning to gather some strength.