In March, members of the Society for Maintenance & Reliability Professionals (SMRP) convened on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to meet with Congressional leaders on the barriers to and opportunities for strengthening the American manufacturing industry and workforce. During the visit, three groups of SMRP members met with 19 U.S. senators and representatives and their staff in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Caucus, the House Committee on Homeland Security, and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, among others.
SMRP Chair Larry Hoing, CMRP, CMRT, and senior manager of asset care at Wells Enterprises Inc., spoke with Plant Services about his impressions as a member of this year’s fly-in team and about SMRP’s goals for its next visit in 2018.
PS: How did this trip get organized?
LH: This is our third year (of doing a governmental trip). We started this back in 2015, and really it came from some different interests within the SMRP organization to be involved because we knew there were a lot of different moving parts that affected the maintenance and reliability community. Howard Penrose is one of the initial people that got involved, and then through the Kellen staff who helps out on SMRP, some interest was developed there.
In 2015 we had our initial fly-in, really just simply to introduce SMRP to people on the Hill. Quite honestly, you can’t get anything done unless you have a recognized name, so we went there just to introduce ourselves and say: “Hey, here we are. This is our organization. This is what we’re about.” And the message that first year was, “How can we help?” Not “How can you help us?” – it’s how can we help you.
We were received with pretty well open arms in just about every office that we went into with bright shining faces, because we weren’t asking for something. We were actually offering something up, and that offering was the expertise of our members: “How can we help you make good legislation by having people with good expertise talk with you, and help you understand what’s going on in the ground floor of things?”
PS: What are the four SMRP outreach focus groups that are being formed, in anticipation of outreach work?
LH: The four SMRP outreach focus groups will follow the same policy areas that SMRP highlights in its government relations program. These groups will focus on workforce development, workplace safety, critical infrastructure, and cybersecurity. They will be made up of five to 10 SMRP members who will determine the strategy and specific initiatives that each group will pursue.
PS: Given the different interests of the various groups that SMRP met with, did the team have different goals when meeting with each committee, or was it a consistent message of workforce development?
LH: Yes, it was fairly consistent with what we’ve had in the past, but with a little bit more heavier interest. For instance, if we talk about workforce development, the Perkins Act went up and passed in the House but didn’t make it in the Senate, so there it sits. Last year, we wrote an op-ed (http://plnt.sv/1705-SMRP), got on the Hill, tried to persuade people. We want to keep pressure on and let them know that this is a big deal to industry in the United States.
A lot of our members talk to us about this great wave that’s taking place with the baby boomers that has started to hit. And what happens is, we don’t have the pipeline built in America anymore for kids to learn in junior high school, you know, shop, bend metal, cut wood, you know, work with their hands and understand some of the physical sciences. They don’t have that anymore.
When they come out of high school, everybody thinks they need to get a white-collar job and a four-year degree, so that pipeline is empty. With this great wave happening, all that knowledge leaving our manufacturing floor, there is nothing to replace it with. Companies are spending a great deal of money to train people when they get there, and if you think about that from an economics perspective, then the price of your car (in my case, your ice cream cone), the price of anything that you have manufactured in the United States goes up because the companies are footing that bill, because people are not coming in with the technical skills that we need to replace (due to) the great wave that’s leaving.
That’s one small aspect of workforce development: How can legislators help us create the right behaviors in school districts, in colleges, in community colleges so that we build that workforce back up so that we don’t lose our tax base? Basically, you know, manufacturing is a big part of the tax base here in the States, and we can’t survive on a service economy.
We’ve also done quite a bit of work recently with the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA). I was able to last year sit in on one of their meetings to help write some of the new regulations, and then we also had them at one of our conferences. So big relationships are being built and formed. (Editor’s note: SMRP members are working with OSHA on the administration’s first Safe and Sound Week.)
PS: SMRP Government Relations Director John Ferraro has commented that there’s a link between energy and cybersecurity infrastructure and investments in workforce education. Did you get a sense that that message was received well by the communities you spoke with?
LH: Yes, I think so. If we’re going to increase our infrastructure, if we’re going to throw $1 trillion at infrastructure, if we’re going to do some work around cybersecurity, tell me where you’re going to get the people to do it. We can throw all the money in the world at it and try and create the concrete, the metal, and all that other stuff, but if we don’t have people to put it in right and know how to do this and have the technical skills to manufacture these things, then we’re kidding ourselves.
There’s a direct correlation between the skills that we have currently. Everybody wants (goods) to be built in America and we need to do that for the tax base. But if we don’t have people to pull from, that’s going to be much more difficult. There’s also a direct correlation between that and the technical skills that we have to help buffer ourselves from any cybersecurity attacks. All of those things are very well connected to workforce development and having the right workforce developed in the different regions of the country.
PS: Looking toward the future, what’s next in the short term based on these meetings, and are you looking forward to another fly-in in 2018?
LH: Yes, we’ve got some tentative plans that we’re looking at. We just developed and are just starting on the four focus groups I mentioned earlier, are getting our members more involved with these groups, and then the plan is to take each focus group to the Hill and then have specific meetings. For example, first is workforce development, and in the workforce development group, whoever is going to make it to Washington, DC, would do a specific target on workforce development and on that only.
There’s more of a bond happening there in our relationship with these (government) groups, and there’s more trust. They’re pulling on us more. You know, most of these representatives and senators love to speak to somebody from their constituency. When we’re able to bring somebody in the office, for instance me, if I go into the offices of Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) or Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), they’re very interested in hearing not only about what we are as an organization but what (issues are surfacing in) Iowa, or Ohio, or whatever.
Those are really great connections to be able to make. We can then say, “Hey, you know, this company was centered in Ohio; they are in SMRP and they are big employer,” and there’s some leverage just to saying these companies are interested in workforce development. We’re making these partnerships and building the relationships so that SMRP, and not only SMRP but our members, have a voice and have the ability to say, “Hey, come talk to us, and we’ll at least give you what’s happening on the ground floor.”
PS: Relationship-building, rather than going there asking for something and that’s it.
LH: Right. And we’re going in nonpolitical. When we meet with some of these offices, we try to meet with both sides of the aisles, you know, both the majority and the minority group in several of these offices. We’re trying to make sure we spread out, so that we’re not just talking to one side or the other. So it’s a nonpartisan-type approach, apolitical, so to speak.
I think that’s a positive spin. I think it’s different than what you might consider lobbying, to say, “Hey, go do this. We need you to do this.” We’re saying, “How can we help?” by just giving our expertise and then helping the lawmakers make good law from there.