Manufacturing and trades just need some respect

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If you've read a newspaper or been online lately, chances are you've read about the skills shortage or the workforce paradox. The situation is frustrating manufacturers,

Students working on a robotic arm used in advanced manufacturing. Photo credit: Moraine Park Technical College


vexing human resource managers and inhibiting economic recovery. There are as many opinions about the causes and solutions as there are Wisconsin residents. Critics seem intent upon debunking the notion altogether and declaring manufacturing a dead industry.

Since October is Manufacturing Month, it's a good time to reflect upon perceptions and recalibrate expectations.

Since long before the great recession, the nation's economy began slowly moving from a manufacturing base to an economic and financial base. Technology accelerated automation, eliminating many jobs but leaving a smaller number of positions with greater skills. The recession slowed many segments including construction and trades, forcing fewer people to take on more responsibilities.

Certain jobs are not suited for automation and will always need human intervention. These may not offer the prestige of newer jobs. Our first challenge is to generate interest in those jobs by elevating their value, then we can prepare people for them. Perhaps unromantic or unglamorous, most jobs (estimates are 80 to 90 percent) will need education, though maybe not a bachelor's degree, which was historically the default preparation for many jobs, but may not suffice in the new economy. The skilled nature of the jobs may need education via an apprenticeship (with formal, on-the-job training meeting strict specifications) or perhaps an associate degree, a short-term technical diploma, a two-year technical/occupational degree or even a short-term certificate. 

What about the claims of skills shortages? A recent study by the Center for Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) says manufacturing is a bright spot in Wisconsin's economy. The sector grew by 13,300 jobs from January 2011 to June 2012." These tend to be more advanced manufacturing careers, needing more complex skills such as computing and engineering and the work is often done in clean rooms, or sterile, high-tech labs. The report continues, "Wisconsin's manufacturing sector outperformed the nation by nearly 10,000 jobs." And yet, the same report says, "Wisconsin's rate of job growth was slowest among all states in the Midwest." Only nine states had slower growth rates. Soon, baby boomers will retire en masse, leaving nearly 1 million more jobs unfilled in Wisconsin alone by 2018. In other words, workforce readiness is not aligned with the current need, much less the potential for growth.

Manufacturing is still the largest of Wisconsin's industries at around 19 percent and is clamoring for employees to fill the jobs that can’t be automated but need specific skills. Transitioning unemployed or underemployed people into manufacturing careers or trades would be a win-win situation, however transitioning people into these positions requires 1) people with interest, 2) the education and 3) public support and/or value for the work.

So what can we do to affect immediate change? One thing all of us can do, even if we don't make policy or influence economic matters directly, we can look at and reconsider our opinions about these jobs both in the trades and manufacturing. We can respect people who hold the jobs, institutions that educate for them and the companies that hire them.

Enter Mike Rowe, known for hosting Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." Mr. Rowe and his foundation, mike rowe WORKS, are trying to elevate these stigmatized careers in the public perception. These are some of the very same jobs for which Wisconsin's Technical Colleges educate students, and endure stigma as well. Traditional blue-collar and the newer gold-collar jobs such as plumbers, electricians, welders, auto mechanics, etc. are as necessary today as they have ever been. In some ways they are even more necessary, because even in our DIY - Do it yourself culture, our fast paced modern lives do not readily accommodate downtime for auto or home repairs, filling potholes, farming cattle or pigs, fighting fires, etc. And those people who followed more the traditional education path are woefully unprepared for those jobs.

Mr. Rowe makes the case in written testimony to Congress, that people in these jobs "make civilized life possible for the rest of us." If that were not reason enough, elevating these jobs would put more people to work and expand the economy. Education from a technical college is not a dead-end, nor is a career in a trade or manufacturing for that matter. For those so motivated, our education systems are more flexible and accessible than ever, allowing more students to pursue degrees well beyond the traditional timeline or in the traditional order (as shown by the 34,000+ Wisconsin Technical College enrollees who already hold a bachelor's degree but are returning to gain new skills). Since our economy is changing at light speed anyway, acceptance of lifelong learning and non-traditional paths might as well be a tenet of a contemporary, responsive education system and perhaps our expectations too.

In deference to Manufacturing Month, here are some considerations for affecting change, starting in our homes, communities and working out. If your child approached you today and said they wanted to work in a wastewater treatment plant, or maintain wind turbines, or as a welder, could you support and even encourage their decision? Would you? If the neighbor boy or girl wanted to become an auto mechanic, would you encourage him or her? Would you mention the need for bridge builders, cable installers, landscapers, food processing staff or any of these other “top 100 trades” among economic priorities to your local politician? Request your local high school expand Career and Technical Education opportunities? Write a letter to the editor stressing the economic value of not creating, but filling 450,000 to 1 million existing jobs to expand the economy? Share this blog or Tweet about it … all of the above?

As manufacturers will attest, the opportunities are there; it's just that the bodies and the interest are not, in large part, because they aren't as valued.

Read more:
Bridging the skills gap: Vocational training takes center stage, The Cap Times, July 18, 2012
State manufacturers have jobs, need workers, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, 7/29/12

Eight steps for closing the skills gap, Huffington Post, 8/21/12
Filling the skills gap, New York Times, July 2, 2012
2011 Skills gap report, Manufacturing Institute
Manufacturing Extension Partnership