Critical steps

Aug. 12, 2008
Contributing Editor Joel Leonard reports that from South Carolina to Chicago, leaders are taking steps to cure the maintenance crisis.

As more infrastructure disasters are exposed by major news outlets, awareness about the maintenance crisis continues to grow. However, much more action is needed to resolve the challenges of the retiring “Geezer Bust” (a.k.a. baby boomer) generation. Here are my recommendations for steps the United States needs to take if the economy is to sustain its performance and gain a competitive advantage in the process.

We still need more maintenance and reliability evangelists proving to the nation’s leaders the competitive advantages of increased levels of capacity. I’m thrilled that Duke University’s MBA leadership wants to learn more about the value of maintenance and reliability programs, and wants to explore further methods for educating their current and future students about this critical business driver. Yes, this development made me shout in exultation that fixing the maintenance crisis isn’t a hopeless endeavor.

Perhaps Harvard and other top-tier programs will become curious about reliability as well. My hope is that in the future, U.S. MBA graduates won’t need to be trained by their engineering and maintenance staff, and executives will provide the leadership necessary to drive the business to optimal performance levels.

With the recent devaluation of the dollar, we now have a window of opportunity to maximize our productivity and distribute U.S.-manufactured goods with a serious profit margin. As reported on BBC business news, U.S. companies are striving to hire skilled workers to address refinery and energy-capacity issues.

According South Carolina World Trade Center Vice President Mark Condon, “The devalued dollar makes U.S. products, real estate and manufacturing plants a bargain.” Who would ever have thought that America’s favorite beer, Budweiser, might become the property of Belgians? That’s one bar bet most would never have taken, regardless of their current level of consumption.

If top-level executives catch on, they’ll invest more in reliability skill-development programs and more companies will flourish.

At the American Competitiveness Summit in Chicago (, Intel’s Chairman of the Board Craig Barrett said that if a foreign country managed our education system, we would perceive its output as an act of war. A contributing factor is that the average teacher makes about $43,000 per year, but what is particularly alarming is that the average bad teacher and the average good teacher both make about $43,000 per year. A system that doesn’t recognize excellence won’t have excellence.

That explains why more than 30% of students never graduate from high school. Vocational education is frowned upon while every student is encouraged either to go to college or be a loser. Employers continue to wail that high-school and even college graduates don’t have any discernable skill sets, nor the attitudes or motivation to attain them. Employers complain that the few viable candidates expect to start at top wages and aren’t willing to work hard at or invest in their own vocational development.

We need to quit looking at our youth with a binary mind-set that there are winners — i.e., college students — or losers, in which category electricians and millwrights are lumped in with burger flippers and future convicts.

If we’re to thrive with the increased competition in the global economy, career technical education needs a serious renaissance. We need a national skills strategy and policy to advance our country and work toward building a “Reliability Nation.”

Pockets of excellence exist. For example, Chicago is introducing new workforce-development strategies. Mayor Richard M. Daley, who leads the country in implementing green building systems and now governs a city with hundreds of rooftop gardens that conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions, also has been instrumental in striving for tangible results in his city’s educational system. He points out that the United States is the only modern country that allows our youth to have a three-month vacation each summer. He is building formal apprenticeship and mentorship programs so when kids graduate from high school, they already will have been exposed to the workforce and can immediately begin to make a contribution.

Join me next month as I outline more steps toward fixing the maintenance crisis, and please visit for our most recent coverage as we strive to fix maintenance and reliability to advance us all.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected].

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