Education Isn’t THE Solution To Fix Our Manufacturing Skills Shortage

Education won't save US manufacturing

The skills shortage in US manufacturing is well-known. Has been for years. Everyone writes about it, including me. And most people say that education is the key. The line goes that if we beef up more education programs for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics), revive shop & manufacturing-focused programs in our high schools, and recommit to apprenticeship programs, we’ll overcome the shortage and get back on track.

Well, it’s not that simple. In fact, focusing on education as the tonic for our woes will amount to using a squirt gun on a forest fire.

You see, it’s not entirely that a career in manufacturing is seen as a path for toothless mouth-breathers. And it’s not even that there aren’t the same numbers of children born with the desire to make things, fix things, DO things. And it’s not even that manufacturing isn’t cool.

The problem is that for a generation, US manufacturers outsourced the jobs of fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters in search of cheap labor. The children of this generation saw their grandparents retire with a gold watch, a boat, a pension, and a marginally decent life that they’d earned over a life-long career.

But then, they sat around tables or living rooms on what was very likely one of the most memorable evenings of their young lives and listened to their moms or dads tell them that things were about to change. That the factory/mill/shop/plant was shutting down, and the manufacturing job that had given them a decent life, pride, and dignity was no more. There were probably tears. Moods changed, relationships suffered, some families shattered. These kids watched their parents and communities face a dust-bowl reality that said they were expendable. The invisible hand bitch-slapped ’em upside the head.

How do you tell someone to ‘un-live’ that?

I’m a committed, dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. I believe in free markets. I know that technology renders what were once crafts as commodities. But I also know that you don’t change the harsh perceptions of those kids – and their own kids – with a ‘Manufacturing Is Cool’ bumper sticker, or a shop class 3 days a week.

What we did to those kids is the elephant in the room. It’s what we don’t want to acknowledge in the conversation of skills shortages, because it ain’t easy to go back and say, ‘we were just kidding, and we won’t do it again.’ Sure, there are other cultural issues that’ve contributed to our STEM sloth. But this perception of deception is the primary challenge between where we are and us gettin’ our manufacturing mojo back.

And any conversation about skills-shortage solutions that doesn’t include this undeniable fact amounts to another slap in the face. A sin of omission. A disingenuous retelling of history, that amounts to a lie. Those kids know what happened, and they’re not about to get burnt like they saw their families get burnt.

So, what do we do? We start with honesty. The players need to be held accountable. The companies and politicians that enabled the pursuit of cheap labor  for it’s own sake must understand manufacturing closer to or within markets of consumption and its value to the environment and all economies. We all have a responsibility to earn trust through action.

And we do that with a sound, comprehensive industrial & manufacturing policy. To those that say to pursue such a policy is ‘protectionism,’ I say fine – try running your company or a government or a city or a nation or a family without it. For example, abolish your police department and watch what happens. Yeah, ‘protection’ is there to keep those inclined to dishonesty more honest.

A policy states categorically what values are present and prioritizes those values. To have no policy says, in essence, that we value nothing.

There are no statistics to measure this generation’s condition. I – and you – don’t need any, do we? We know it just as certainly as we know we have to do something to break this logjam of denial and pent-up frustration. Without doing so will only ensure that as we continue to shout from the rooftops, fewer and fewer will answer the call.

Of course, education is a key component in rebuilding our industrial base in meaningful, sustainable ways. But so are sane trade policies, significant patent reform, economic incentives, and tax & regulatory reforms. To begin with education or any of these single elements as THE solution ignores how our economy works, where we’re at, and how we get to where we want to be.

But first, it’s about trust. And it’s hard to trust someone else once the person you trusted most has betrayed you.

Let’s not ignore this point. Let’s add it to the vernacular around our manufacturing skills shortage. Let’s build honesty and reality into the dialogue.

And let’s start by being honest with ourselves.

AJ Sweatt
  1. Nicely done! I’ve written about how to inspire the next generation into the manufacturing industry, as well as read volumes on the subject. I’ve NEVER heard anyone discuss the emotional impact on an entire generation who watched their family dynamic change as the factory that their Mom or Dad worked at closed. Perhaps part of the answer is to inspire not just work in the industry, but entrepreneurial efforts whereby one has more control over their destiny.

    Very informative site!

    • Thanks for the visit and note, Fran. This is something I think we get for only reading the press or economists’ impressions – we forget to humanize things like manufacturing, when it’s actually about as human an environment as you’re likely to find. That kind of honesty just has to temper our approach to re-energizing our industrial base, or we’ll never get those good folks back. At least, not in any meaningful, long-term ways.

      Thanks again for the support. You rock.

  2. Well done my friend

    • Thanks, Don. I’m always struck by economists and bean-counters that de-humanize these things and overlook the critical human element. I think it’s awfully important to focus on that, otherwise there just won’t be much for ’em to count in the long run.

  3. When the manufacturing industry seems to be in a nationwide downward spiral, workers don’t even know where to relocate to find other types of manufacturing jobs. And, if their spouse still has a good job, there is no incentive to move to where there might be an opportunity for another manufacturing job. For example, I’m sure that only residents in the region are aware that German industrial corporation AG Siemens has a new plant in Charlotte, North Carolina and is hiring nearly 900 workers.

    • Thanks for the visit and your note. Great point about people staying put. Add to that the fact that so many people are upside-down on their mortgages (and unable to sell their homes), and you have a stagnation that organically prevents any exodus to find new work and fill positions in manufacturing. It can’t just be about local talent. Thanks again for the excellent point.

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