A manufacturing company used to be a place where an owner gathered everything that was needed for manufacturing to take place. It was the entrepreneur’s job to gather technology, equipment, people and material to make a product. It was also his job to secure sales and distribution for the finished product. Often as not, in capital intensive lines of work like fastener manufacturing or paper milling, the maintenance operations included all the skills needed to build, or at least rebuild, the heavy equipment used for production.
Somewhere along the line this view of manufacturing unraveled in America. The first thing to go was the machinery building section of the maintenance department. Companies could cut payroll and floor space requirements by purchasing equipment. The technology required to produce products became the property of the equipment builders rather than the producers of those products. Maybe this change made sense as equipment producers became more flexible and the technology more readily available, but manufacturers still pay a price for the absence of the technicians who really know the equipment from the ground up.
The next thing to go from the complete set of manufacturing resources was the manufacturers’ obligation to provide themselves with a qualified staff to produce products and run the business. First the company colleges fell away. Big companies like Caterpillar and General Motors started to look outside for engineers instead of training their own. Then, in the 80s or so, apprenticeship programs for skilled trades and manufacturing technicians began to fall away. Managers with a short view of profitability shed these expenses and began to pirate other firms’ tradespeople and experienced hands when they needed reinforcements. Once training stopped benefiting the companies that were still doing it, just about everyone quit. There are still some companies providing tuition assistance to employees who want to grow, but the support is typically limited.
As product life cycles have shortened, many producers have adopted business models that minimize the companies’ investment in all the manufacturing resources. Plant space and equipment can all be leased. People can be hired from temporary agencies. Purchasing relationships can be developed quickly, purely based on price. When sales fall off, the entire operation can be sold off and forgotten, along with the town built up around it and the people who worked there.
Perhaps a lot of this was inevitable with today’s pace of change and the rapid flow of information that makes organizational setup and teardown as fast as it is today. At my daughter’s college graduation a few years ago the speaker told the grads that they should plan on an average of five careers each, two of which hadn’t even been invented yet. So much for corporate loyalty, or employee loyalty for that matter.
None of this means that a career in manufacturing is no longer available. Far from it, but anyone who wants such a career will need to build it herself. Career planning, education, mentoring and financing will only be provided to a small percentage of workers, mostly fast-track wonder kids. This dose of reality will come as a particular hardship to kids who are trying to rise above their home surroundings. They will have to be clever or lucky enough to find mentors who will guide them toward realizing their potential before they really understand what that potential is.
For those youngsters interested in manufacturing, the story isn’t all that sad. The ingredients are available, and there is a desperate shortage of qualified people in manufacturing. The shortage is getting more serious every day as the last graduates of the old way are retiring from industry. But, unlike the days of postwar US manufacturing, a kid who manages to get into a union or a company is not assured of an uninterrupted, 30-year trip to full retirement. There are a few steps a manufacturing novice will need to take in order to build a career:
- Find someone in manufacturing, or your chosen career, who is living the life you would like to live. Adopt him or her as a mentor and get help mapping your path to manufacturing success. If you ask the right people for help, they will be flattered. If they’re not interested, ask someone else.
- Get started on the educational path that will support your career development. There is no substitute for schooling. On the job training is important, but credentials from schools and apprenticeships will ensure that you don’t start on the bottom rung each time you have to begin a new job. Community colleges are good places to start almost any career path.
- Show up on time every day for work and class. Most unsuccessful people miss out on this step.
- Watch the successful people around you and adopt the professional demeanor that they exhibit in their work. Even if you’re still in school, dress, communicate and carry yourself as if you already have the next job you want. The people around you will be better able to envision you in the new role when the time comes to hire or promote someone.
- Have a plan with dates and check off your progress against it. Learn to take satisfaction from movement toward your goals. Use that mentor or mentors from step 1 to check your plan, set the dates and validate your progress.
For those of us who have already made it in manufacturing, there is an important role to play as well. Next time we are lamenting the lack of manufacturing talent in our companies and communities, we should contact our choice of community colleges, trade associations, unions or other professional organizations and ask where we can help.
If you’re who I think you are, students and teachers are waiting to hear from you.