The Elephant in the Room

Manufacturing continues to call on high schools to offer more skills training and increase their emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But the coming generations we are trying to attract into our world need more than this. They need to understand why the companies that will value their backgrounds will also nourish their lives and their souls.

As we enter into what many are projecting to be a solid year for manufacturing, I want to share a somewhat disturbing insight with you that I brought home from the recent FABTECH 2013 show in Chicago.

In between meetings on the floor, I sat in on a “State of the Industry: Executive Outlook” panel discussion between moderator Alan Beaulieu of ITR Economics (Boscawen, NH), Jeff Oravitz of MetoKote Corporation (Lima, OH) and Bill Adler of  Stripmatic Products, Inc. (Cleveland, OH).

They hashed out several relevant topics that we’ve all been wondering about: a manufacturing renaissance really is going on and increased government regulation and higher taxes could potentially stop it; Obamacare is not the end of the world as we know it; there will be another recession someday in the future.

But when the conversation turned to the challenges that manufacturers face in finding new talent and the skills they need to remain competitive, things got interesting. After each panelist spoke his piece, Beaulieu turned to the audience and asked a simple, but profound, question: “How many of you want your kids to go into manufacturing?”

The silence was deafening. An audience of maybe 60 to 80 people sat there for what seemed like a painful eternity before nine or ten people finally fessed up and raised their hands. I was caught totally off-guard. Roughly 15 percent or less of an audience that had chosen manufacturing for their career wanted their kids to follow in their footsteps.

Is it getting warm in here?

I’m not the only one who was there shaking my head in disbelief. In his Made in Dayton blog, Gary Weldon of Staub Manufacturing Solutions (Dayton, OH), a laser cutting and metal fabrication company, asked, “Could it be true that the majority of those who have invested years of their lives in this trade and have found a good living in it, would prefer that the ones they care about most, their kids, do something, anything, else than manufacturing?”

My mind was racing with so many questions. “I’m really not sure what to make of this,” continued Weldon in his blog. “Was it just the group in Chicago or is this problem widespread? How would you answer that question? Do you want your kids to be in manufacturing? And if not, why? And one other question too, if this really is a widespread problem, what can we do to fix it?”

I believe that Eileen Markowitz, the president of ThomasNet (New York, NY) may have the answer. In a recent survey conducted by her firm, 73 percent of the respondents believe that young people still have negative perceptions that deter them from considering manufacturing jobs.

They wish they could draw back the curtain and show the naysayers what they know so well: that the rewards of manufacturing are unparalleled,” says Markowitz. “These manufacturers are vocal about the satisfaction they gain from creating something tangible, working in an environment of constant change, making a difference to customers from around the globe, and contributing to their country’s economic well-being.”

If that sounds pretty much like the same tune we have all been harping on for some time now, hold on, because she has more.

Many of these manufacturers have developed partnerships with schools to engage their “best and brightest” and they consider educators important for their future,” adds Eileen Markowitz. “They continue to call on high schools to offer more skills training, and to increase their emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

Then she cuts to the bottom line: “These strategies, though, are just the tip of the iceberg. The coming  generations need more than STEM knowledge; they need to understand why the companies that will value their backgrounds will nourish their lives and their souls.”

Get your mind around that for a moment. “As a foundation of our economy, the manufacturing sector is strong and technology continues to give companies more opportunities to grow. The hard truth, though, is that changes in workforce demographics threaten to override these gains,” states Markowitz. “For the manufacturing sector to benefit most in this era of innovation, those who love the industry need to step up efforts to share their passion with the next generation.”

That hits home, literally. “Whether we’re talking with our children about their dreams at the kitchen table, taking them on plant tours during Manufacturing Day events, or bringing manufacturing speakers to schools during career fairs, we need to wear our hearts on our sleeves,” explains Markowitz.

As an industry, we spend a lot of time talking about how we can change the image of manufacturing for the general public,” notes Weldon. “I agree that this is a good idea, but maybe we need to address the perceptions inside our factory walls.”

Excellent point. A few words from parents that run a family business  can change the course of a child’s life and make him fall in love with his career. “With a similar approach to engaging the next generation, starting at the grassroots level, we can grease the wheels of this $1.9 trillion sector, carrying it toward an even more vibrant future,” says Markowitz.

Sounds like a good way to remove what might be a very large elephant from the room. Here’s to the good year that lies ahead.

Mike Riley

Mike Riley is the editor of Fabricating & Metalworking magazine and the author of Backfield In Motion (Derek Press, 2007). Share your thoughts with him at 205-994-5299 or mriley@fandmmag.com.

2 Comments



  • Ray Chalmers wrote:

    WELL stated, Mike. “Get a college education” has crushed the front for the present generations, while supplying the skilled trades is the equivalent of house-to-house fighting. Small companies that still do a lot of the work in this country look to sons, daughters, friends of same, etc., for that “light in the eyes” that comes with making a part. I have no doubt that smart kids will still realize that the fastest way to the owner’s boat, hunting property, or other toys is to listen to what he or she has to say at least or figure out a better way to achieve it at best. Fare forward.

  • JERRY R MILLER wrote:

    Why am I NOT surprised!?!?
    I have spent half of my career in MFG(25Yrs) & our three Boys(35, 32 & 26) wanted nothing to do with MFG. Then the Housing Crash forced my youngest to make a decision.… he moved back home & in just two years, has seen the struggles & long hours, it takes to survive in a Global Economy, with a Small FAB Shop. Not just the regular day-to-day Issues.… but one former disgruntled employee, caused OSHA to show up twice in one year; both times based on LIES.
    I’m proud to be in MFG & the last American MFG of Galley Components. And, any chance I get to speak at BIZ MTGs or with local Students; I remind them that there are only 3 ways to Create WEALTH: Farming, Mining & MANUFACTURING! And, I only know 2 Farmers, Zero Miners & less MFG’s every day; as our Own GOVT, creates more Regulations & Taxes; that puts the Small Shop at a great disadvantage, compared to Global CORPs.