Changing Workforce / Leadership Skills / Career Development

Real talk about finding, keeping a manufacturing job today

Whether you’re new to the workplace or a veteran professional, Heinz Bloch says you need to make the effort to evolve your skills.

By Heinz P. Bloch

Suppose you had retired from a satisfying job in oil refining, petrochemicals, or another process industry a few decades ago. Now, years later, you’re being asked to steer a neighbor’s grandchild in the direction of learning a marketable skill. Or maybe you’re asked to provide insights on how times have changed and how even individuals already in the workforce have to tweak their figurative road map. A good road map greatly lowers the risk of losing one’s job. And certainly, everybody profits from occasional readjustments and sound overall guidance.

We don’t have to be reminded that times have changed and the realities of today’s job market can be cruel and unforeseen. It’s also an inconvenient fact that future employees will not reach their goals by following yesteryear’s road map. Automation and advanced electronics have taken over today’s industrial production sites, and process technology is inseparable from its many software drivers. A college education is no longer the sure ticket to a comfortable life.

Advice for first-time job seekers

Young job seekers must engage the power of many available approaches in their search or decision-making processes. Randomly trying several different jobs just to see if you like one of them is risky; it might make you seem like a ship without a rudder. Having tinkered for years with one’s laptop and being speedy and ambidextrous at texting do not qualify as value-adding, marketable, job-guaranteeing information technology or programming skills.

The smart approach is to do some serious studying and reading. Applying for a welding job? See yourself at a job interview sitting across from an interviewer who, earlier in the day, had a lively exchange with another applicant. That applicant knew how to explain the difference between submerged arc and TIG welding. Could you do the same? Suppose you thought about a career in process operations. You could read articles in a wide range of trade journals and become better informed about the field; being informed would equip you to examine (or even convey) your true potential. If you have a neighbor who makes his living as a skilled process operator, why not ask what the process at his or her plant is all about? What’s the basic raw material for the process and does it get delivered at the property line in burlap bags or in a 6-inch pipeline? How exactly is the basic material converted into a particular end product? And is it shipped in railroad tank cars or in hopper cars or cardboard boxes?

Let’s be picky and point out that it wouldn’t hurt in a job application to correctly spell important words. Your targeted future employer will no doubt see more value in an applicant whose vocabulary extends beyond the customary 600 words and 140-character text messages. All things being equal, a candidate fluent in two widely used languages would be given the nod over an applicant who never tried to be a good communicator and whose ill-constructed sentences are loaded with “you know.” Translation: As you prepare for the real world, feed your brain on value-adding material. Go for a marketable skill and make it your single-minded goal to be a better-than-average employee.

How job holders can keep up

The guaranteed career jobs of 1955 through 1975 are a thing of the past, but even persons presently employed should see fit to improve their skills; there’s great value in aiming to become multiskilled. The goal isn’t perfection; the goal is to be above average and to adapt as necessary. Realize the time we must invest to achieve these goals must come from somewhere, so reconsider how and where you’re using your time. Separate your “needs” from your “wants.” The former have boundaries, the latter are without limits and constraints. Chasing after “wants” turns into debt and self-inflicted anxieties. Only you can avoid self-inflicted anxieties.

Common sense tells us that even in a shrinking economy, above-average and multiskilled performers will be retained by their employers and/or will have less difficulty finding employment. And while this claim may sound just like so many other consultant-conceived generalities, let me give you a very deliberate and very specific example. We’ll assume that you are a machine operator at a plant that makes gears, and many of these gears are drive elements in oil production or exploration machinery. It follows that some gear-makers are losing their jobs in a downsizing economy. I want you to assume – for a moment – that I’m one of them. I would now be looking for similar employment as an experienced machine operator. Over the years, I would probably have collected a few interesting sheets of paper and placed them in a special three-ring binder. My resume would highlight skills and accomplishments and I would take the three-ring binder with me on my job interviews. I could envision myself asking a member of the HR team to spend a single minute of interview time looking at what’s in my three-ring binder. I would say something like: “You see, while I worked for Perfect Gear Co., I became quite interested in the maintenance and lubrication aspects of the gear hobbers, shapers, broaches, and grinders. What I learned applies to other machines. In my view, an expert machine operator should know something about the inner workings of machinery. That’s a wide area within which I can contribute. Please give me a call when you have a job opening.”

That’s the advice I would give to young and old, job seekers and job holders. I firmly believe that the future belongs to the value-adders. Today, and above anything else, we will add value if we make wise choices and exert ourselves.