Manufacturing Is Not a Dirty Word

April 3, 2013
Economical Paradox: Too Many Americans Can't Find Jobs, Yet Too Many Companies Can't Fill Open Positions
About the Author
Pamela Kan is chair of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn. (CMTA) and a member of the California Workforce Investment Board (CWIB). She is also president of Bishop-Wisecarver.An article caught my attention recently for a couple of reasons: It was about making a positive impact on our tech workforce, a topic that I am passionate about; and it was written by an executive at Microsoft, a company that I was surprised to hear faces the same challenges as we do in finding skilled employees.

The article ("How to Reduce America's Talent Deficit," Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19, 2012) by Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, explains that Microsoft has more than 6,000 open jobs in the U.S., some 3,400 of them for engineers, software developers and researchers.

SEE ALSO: How to Build a Skilled Workforce

My attention was first piqued by Smith's article simply because he's from Microsoft. As a manufacturer in California's East Bay, I constantly compete for talent against Silicon Valley companies. I was really shocked to learn that many of my challenges in finding skilled employees are the same as those at Microsoft.

Like Microsoft, we have had positions remain open for months. My assumption was that I was losing out on talent to Silicon Valley, but now I see that the problem is far worse than I originally thought — it is a systemic failure of our current educational system.

How have we created such a disconnect between our educational institutions and the needs of business? It is troubling that we do not graduate students with the skill sets that actually make them employable. As Smith writes in his article, "Thus the economy faces a paradox. Too many Americans can't find jobs, yet too many companies can't fill open positions."

Smith calls for a national "Race to the Future" that would provide funding and incentives for states to:

•  Strengthen STEM in grade schools by recruiting and training teachers to the Common Core Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards.

•  Broaden access to computer science in high schools. For manufacturing jobs, this has to also include opportunities for hands-on learning that reinforces a STEM education. Programs such as FIRST Robotics need to be available in every school.

•  Help colleges and universities raise their graduation rates. I think this does not address the fact that an alarming percentage of students never even make it to a four-year college. We need to focus on graduating students from high school before we worry about college. There also needs to be strong financial support for our community colleges and acknowledge them for their role in training our workforce with technology-specific skills.

•  Expand the capacity of our colleges to produce more STEM-focused degrees.

I couldn't agree more! But one big issue that Smith is not addressing in the last bullet point is that you can only offer STEM-related degrees when there are enough people interested in those programs. When being an engineer is not highly valued in our country and it is a struggle to get students to enroll in a class with the word "manufacturing" in it, no wonder we can't produce enough degreed and skilled workers.

What has happened in our country to make our next generation so turned off by manufacturing? Today's kids and their parents seem to think that manufacturing is dirty, dumb, boring, cheap and dead. But these ideas couldn't be further from the truth.

The rise of lean and continuous improvement cultures have made many manufacturing facilities almost clean enough to eat off the floor (I say this with the five second rule in mind).

Manufacturing drives the majority of innovation and R&D investment in our country. Manufacturers lead the way in new technologies, and the design and development of products that improve our daily lives and the welfare of people around the world. If you want to be on the cutting edge, then you want a job in manufacturing.

Manufacturing jobs pay, on average, $17K more than service-sector jobs. Manufacturing jobs are the backbone of a strong middle class.

And why do we think manufacturing is a thing of the past when we as a nation are the largest consumer of goods in the world? The face of manufacturing might be changing in the U.S., but it is far from dead. Just thinking about the impact that additive manufacturing will make over the next decade is mind-blowing.