The lack of new talent in industry

As with my previous column, I am taking another foray in to yesteryear. This is a privilege of being chronologically challenged (old).

I have written a lot on how things used to be, and I continue to see certain elements from the past that bear consideration as solutions to many of today’s main industrial issues.

A hot topic in all of the surveys and research that HDMA does shows that there is a real problem with finding and/or developing people for the continued growth of businesses in our industries.

From our membership, this is evident in two particular areas: technical disciplines (mechanical, electrical and manufacturing engineers) and skilled factory workers (those able to operate advanced manufacturing systems and equipment in an error-free way).

Losing Ground

There is a TV show by John Ratzenberger called Made in America. For those of you who don’t recognize the name, he played the hapless postman, Cliff Clavin, in the popular 1980s and 1990s sitcom Cheers.

The central theme of Made in America is that the United States is losing ground with its ability to find and produce skilled blue collar workers and to succeed in the world economy. The series points out that very little emphasis is being placed on the “trades” as a viable career path for today’s youth.

As a result, America may see a day where it loses its place in the global economy through an inability to make things.

According to the TV series, America is less than a generation away from being a company that only exports raw materials and then imports finished goods, much like we did in the 17th and 18th centuries as a colony of England.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Ratzenberger’s assertion, it is true that very few moms watch their kids grow up, wishing that they would become a plumber, carpenter, mechanic, factory worker or truck driver. Most would like them to work in a white collar environment, with a department or company reporting to them.

De-Emphasized Trades

The Made in America series goes on to explain that the trades have been de-emphasized to the point that middle and high school class selections rarely offer such classes as wood shop, metal shop, electrical shop, auto mechanics, welding, etc. In my days, boys were required to take all of them during eighth through 12th grade.

The girls were all required to take home economics and could take sewing and knitting classes as electives.

I wouldn’t be able to do many of the repairs around my house and maintenance on my car had I not taken those shop classes as a kid.

I did have to learn on my own how to sew buttons on my shirts, which always requires a few Band-Aids and antiseptic, along with a panicky process involving blood stain removal from my button-replaced shirt.

With these days of sparse employment and tough economic times, one of the major hurdles for employers is finding qualified, skilled workers for modern factory positions, technicians for maintenance and repairs and people to develop for future advancement to supervisory and management positions.

The Wrong Direction

It seems that we have gone in the wrong direction regarding the way our society has viewed career options for our kids.

All of the trades types of jobs, particularly the skilled trades such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc., are highly paid positions today. Supply and demand plays into these jobs, and most of them pay a much higher annual salary than typical entry level, white collar jobs.

In addition, manufacturing and service businesses, both small and large, rely on the inflow of new talent as older workers retire or move on.

School Visits

Pay a visit to your local high school or attend a school board meeting and ask the school administrators what they offer students who may not be going on to higher education as alternate preparation for future employment of their students.

Do they recognize that they may be creating future problems for the majority of their students by concentrating on the 20 to 25 percent of the students that will likely go on to a university? Stress the community’s need for skilled workers in the trades.

I have done this and was barraged with the success stories of magnet schools, many of which concentrate on the arts, literature, etc.

We are all paying the bills for all public education – primary, secondary, community colleges, undergraduate and graduate schools. Many of the community colleges offer great programs for the trades.

How do these schools know if they missed many of the kids that would have found their niche in a middle school or high school shop class?

My guess is that many of them view the trades as a fallback position when a higher education path doesn’t work out.

Hidden Aptitudes

It is further disheartening when you view the alarming rate of high school dropouts, which is as high at 50 percent in certain areas of the country.

How many of those kids would have stayed in school had they learned to love shop classes? Many have strong, but hidden, mechanical aptitude just waiting to be discovered.

Again, my call is to get involved.

Those of you who are business owners need to be advocates for your business sector.

Take the time to push for changes that make sense for our industry.

This nation will benefit from the results if enough of you begin a real push for the future workers of this country.

Tim Kraus is the president and chief operating officer (COO) of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA). Prior to joining HDMA, he served in various executive positions with heavy duty industry parts manufacturers. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association exclusively serves as the industry voice of the commercial vehicle product manufacturers. It is a market segment affiliate of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA).