Manufacturing Day 2015 on track for record participation

Annual event looks to broaden perspectives, spark interest in manufacturing careers.

Manufacturing Day 2015 is this Friday, Oct. 2. Across the country, manufacturers will open their doors to school groups, community members, the press and others to demonstrate what work in a modern industrial production facility looks like. Plant Services recently had the opportunity to speak with Ed Youdell, president and CEO of the Rockford, IL-based Fabricators and Manufacturers Association and a co-founder of Manufacturing Day, about what he hopes this year's event will accomplish and the misperceptions that Manufacturing Day is aiming to change about the industry.

PS: For those unfamiliar with your organization and the event, can you provide a little background?

EY: FMA is one of the partnering groups that put Manufacturing Day together. We partnered with the National Association of Manufacturers, the Manufacturing Institute, (and) the National Institute of Standards and Technology through the Department of Commerce. And then a group came to us called Industrial Strength Marketing after the first year we had the event. They were very interested in us because they saw all this online chatter going on about Manufacturing Day, so they came on as a guest producer as well. We've got a couple of other partners—Edge Factor, The Science Channel, the "American Made" movie who all collaborate on producing Manufacturing Day.

My role is—Me along with a guy—I was in a conversation with a guy from NIST, and he was telling me about their MEP program, or manufacturing extension program, and I said, you know we should have an MEP day for FMA members to expose them to all the services MEP provides to manufacturers. And I kind of chewed on it a while, and I said, you know, it's bigger than that. Let's call it Manufacturing Day. Let's use this as a platform to start changing the perceptions and get people interested in pursuing a career in manufacturing. It took off from there.

PS: You mention misconceptions about the industry. What are a few of these that Manufacturing Day is working to change?

EY: The first issue that we're trying to address is what is modern manufacturing. We're trying to change the perception or the thought especially in parents' heads of the image of maybe 1970s manufacturing, of dirty and dingy and unsafe. We really want to define what manufacturing is and what it isn't. It's much more technology-driven today. You think about high-tech, you think about user interfaces—these are all, I think as the future workforce develops, expectations that they will have technology in their hands when they are working. And I think if we can get manufacturers to open their doors up and show people what's going on in the plant, then we'll have a better chance to attract the best and the brightest to manufacturing.

The coolest thing when I talk to young people—I always try to point out to them, thinking about the iPhone, or the iPad—everybody has one; everyone thinks it's the most high-tech device they can imagine; they can't live without it. And I ask them to consider for a minute that somebody made that. And the elegance in the product is not in the functionality; the elegance in the product is that it was actually built and manufactured.

PS: Talking about the modern manufacturing facility—the ones we've seen this year those are clean facilities, with lots of fresh air and sunlight. These aren't dirty, dingy manufacturing facilities that people are working in.

EY: Right. And as part of that, also we want to show that there are family-supporting wage-earning careers available through manufacturing. If you look at some of the opportunities for skilled machinists, skilled press-brake operators, laser operators—the capital investment in something like that can be upward of 1 million dollars. You need somebody who is skilled, smart, who has that technology gift so to speak. We just need to be able to reinforce that those opportunities are out there and hopefully get young people to pursue them. Also, key in this day is getting educators out and counselors out to get into the shop so they can help understand what are those opportunities so they can advise students, maybe this is a plan for you to consider. As part of FMA, we also have a scholarship foundation where we give out scholarships as well as fund summer manufacturing camps for kids, and we really believe strongly in the community college and technical school path because the cost is so much less than a four-year university. Not every kid wants to go to a four-year university; not every kid should go to a four-year university, and there are excellent education opportunities (available elsewhere). Everybody needs to be educated; they just don't necessarily need a four-year degree to have a fulfilling career. We think if we can get the kids into those technical school programs, then we're arming the future workforce in the most effective way to help manufacturers compete globally. Because really it's all about competing globally, not just with the chop shop down the street. We have to think a little broader than that, and talent is one way you address that, along with technology.

PS: What can manufacturers do to better get out the message that hey, there are good jobs available here?

EY: I often think people maybe underestimate the opportunities that they have right now. It's as simple as inviting a school to tour your plant. It really is as basic as that. Getting somebody inside your factory to consider what you have and what you do, and get people to really value manufacturing. U.S. manufacturers are still producing about 20% of the world's value of manufactured products. China is behind us in that. We're really good at, here in the United States, making high-value, sophisticated products and equipment. China is really good at making a million of one little thing. Maybe it's in our best interest to let them make a million of one low-value thing and continue to work in the higher-value products and services.

An additional thought I have is I believe it's important to help people understand that in the current geopolitical environment, the value of retaining core manufacturing competencies in the United States has never been more important than it is right now. The more that we can do from a governmental policies, i.e. tax code, perspective that support helping manufacturers here in the states, the better off we are. Truly if you want to help the middle class, having a strong manufacturing economy and a strong manufacturing base, is the best, fastest path to growing the middle class. That's my belief.

PS: What do you tell people who are interested in manufacturing but who say, "You know what, the real value of wages hasn't really changed in 40 years"?

EY: I think there's two sides to that, in that manufacturers themselves—and this is a broad brush I'm painting with—they have to be competitive in terms of the wages they offer if they want to stop moaning about, "I can't get anybody to take this job." They have a responsibility to bear in the challenge. The other challenge is the people who go after these jobs, they need to be educated and prepared to take them. The number of people who are pursuing, for example, tool and die careers is very small, so you're not going to have a high wage issue. The other thing I think is if you look at 1975—I was 13—I believe it's right in the '70s the education system was strongly moving away from vocational-type education offerings into four-year university college-prep style of education. So therefore we automatically encouraged people not to want to go into these careers, and I think that's part of the equation. I would bet if we looked, right around that time vocation programs really were in decline because the cost and liability of maintaining those types of programs was quite high.

PS: In terms of concerns people have about manufacturing careers, what do you think are the biggest worries? Wages, outsourcing, automation, quality-of-life issues?

EY: I would say outsourcing is probably the biggest issue if you're a parent looking at whether to encourage your child to go into (a manufacturing career). I majored in economics and went into banking after college. I would not want to be in the banking industry, because there's probably layoffs in the banking industry—as you watch these larger banks continue to shrink in size, that certainly has been no safer of an avenue than manufacturing.

The interesting thing—it's not technology (that's a concern), because there are some really neat things happening in the world of technology, such as the Internet of Things. In the plant MRO industry, that's really nothing new. If you look at the predictive maintenance capabilities of the motor companies who do online monitoring, they're out in front of the curve, they just didn't have a sexy name for it. But that's a very exciting name and concept that GE is betting billions and billions of dollars is the future of manufacturing in having systems of equipment talk to one another up and down the supply chain. Full disclosure, last year they invited me to moderate a panel on the industrial Internet of Things. It was an interesting stretch for me to try to educate myself on it. In my particular industry, the Internet of Things is very, very far off. However, General Electric does not bet billions of dollars on something that is not going to happen.

I'm watching that trend, because that connectivity, along with having technology-native young people come into the workforce, they'll be able to understand and tap into that and really maximize those opportunities better than the current generation of workers can.

PS: What do you think really excites this new manufacturing workforce?

EY: I was at a summer manufacturing camp yesterday for middle-school kids. To hear the kids talk about, "Hey, I just got to weld! I never thought I'd be welding!"—that is the coolest thing ever. Putting a kid on a press brake and bending a part into the shape…they're building race cars that use a 7-inch grinder as the power source and then they plug it into an extension cord that runs 100 feet—it's really a great idea.

When the oil and gas industry was, a year ago, really cranking out the investment, welders were making six figures if you're out in the oil fields in South Dakota. It's hard work but it's very lucrative. If you look at user interface technology, technology that includes some type of user interface device, in my opinion that is the next battleground in terms of preference in the workforce. If you can get that secret sauce right for the intuitive nature of the future workforce…kids expect to have technology. Because even in the schools now in many cases they have access to laptops and Chromebooks and things like that, and I believe there is an expectation that they will use these things in their jobs.

PS: As part of Manufacturing Day, are you doing any outreach with those teams in particular—teams on the IT side, for example?

EY: I can't say that we are, but I can't say that we aren't. The nature of Manufacturing Day is that it's really intended for the manufacturer to make it the way they think it should be. That's really the great, grassroots nature of it. You don't even have to do it on October 2; we'd love it if you did, but just be sure to do a day and register it on our site. We started with 240 events three years ago and last year we had 1,650, in all 50 states. We think we'll get close to 2,500 this year. We got the president to do a proclamation for us last year. It continues to grow in its influence. The nature of allowing the manufacturer to decide what the day will be I think is kind of the secret sauce for us. We have a number of tools that we provide for hosts, ideas and videos that they can show and suggestions for how they can reach out to the press, but the theme is certainly all theirs.

PS: Looking five years down the line, how do you think the pressure points for manufacturing will have changed?

EY: I think the career path for technical schools and community colleges is going to grow in importance in the face of the cost of four-year universities. People are going to make the decision because of the student-loan debt problem that that is a more cost-effective path, and it gets me into the workforce faster. That is a trend I truly believe we should watch, and that will only grow in its importance.

PS: Do you have any plans as part of Manufacturing Day to become more involved in school efforts or establish new partnerships with technical schools or community colleges?

EY: We invites schools all over the country to participate. We have a number of community colleges that host events. Here in the Rockford area, we had 10 busloads of high school kids last year that were taken on 20 plant tours. That's an ongoing effort. In Dayton, OH, we had 1,500 kids that toured plants last year over the course of three days. It's pretty powerful stuff.