Why do you think we have a shortage of qualified, capable, technically curious manufacturing workers in the US today?

I can’t figure out if we’re just ignorant (if we’ve become completely disassociated from manufacturing), if we’re purposely trying to mislead ourselves, or if we’re whistling in the dark. Regardless, there’s an elephant in the manufacturing labor living room that’s not being given enough credit for our lack of talent:

Our factories are (were) the classrooms that provide(d) inspiration, training, encouragement and growth to potential manufacturing professionals. And we’re killing them.

If you listen to the pundits, academia, columnists, politicians and Wall Street wizards, the answer (and solution) is one-dimensional: education. We have to train people better. We have to ‘give’ them the skills. We have to step up our commitment to science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM). It’s all about striking head-long into the heart of “the problem” and educating our way back to a competitive, formidable industrial labor force.

And they’re right – but only to a point.

How many manufacturers do you know? How many plants or factories or shops have you gotten to know? If you’re like me, you recognized a long time ago that the traditional academic path often doesn’t apply to many remarkably talented, gifted manufacturers. A classroom doesn’t give them what they need – they live in and control the natural world.

As an example of how manufacturers learn, look no further than Thomas Edison. As a young student, he was described as mixed up or confused. He dropped out and was home schooled. He built a laboratory that not only served his need to create, but also ‘trained’ and ‘enabled’ those same needs in scores of other ‘students.’ (That’s a plant floor at GE in Schenectady in the picture above.) And look what it did. Edison and his teams in that lab and across the industrial empire he created invented products that fed whole   industries and economies. He invented to create wealth. And the cycle continued.

We used to understand this – we had trade schools and other enablers that jolted those slumbering geniuses awake, that inspired them. But often, it was a shop or factory floor that drew this creativity out.

I know more manufacturing professionals than I can count that have evolved via this path into some of the highest functioning critters I know. Classrooms and curricula played secondary roles. They get their hands dirty. They try alternatives. They share. And they learn by doing. They master new technologies by building on the previous ones.

It’s been estimated that the US has lost over 40,000 manufacturing plants over the past 10 years. I see that not only for the tragedy it is – it’s also a significant, natural explanation of why we’re in this labor fix. Those factories and the mentors, technology and test-beds they provided aren’t gone, but they’re on the endangered list. And to me, they weren’t just factories – they were incubators that pointed the way to technology-minded masters of nature, and gave them the canvas to create and contribute.

But to those pundits, they are (were) inhabited by toothless mouth-breathers. Luddites that deserved to be steam-rolled by progress. And in their minds we can ‘create’ a workforce of enlightened freemen through classrooms alone. How does that work, exactly? What schools can/will invest in the economic levels, talent, technology and acumen to build and sustain professional lives in manufacturing? Sure, training isn’t just important – it’s critical. But it’s only one component. For manufacturers, it’s continuous, life-long learning that can only be nurtured in strong industry where talents are focused toward profits and goals more tangible than a diploma.

And we cut the chord. Shut off the supply of developing technologists. Those ‘factories’ were where manufacturers went to grad school. We killed their ‘schools.’ We let it happen. Let’s give ourselves a hand.

So, if getting more qualified workers, more world-class manufacturers that invent and produce the highest-quality and valued products in the world is the goal, here’s an answer. Let’s build more of the best ‘schools’ like we once had. Let’s enable and attract businesses that innovate and create. THAT’S how you rebuild an industrial labor base – not just at MIT or through severely underfunded Manufacturing Extension Partnerships.

We do need more schools to fix this problem (and others), but we also need more factories and businesses. We need a comprehensive industrial policy that reduces taxes in a way that encourages and attracts businesses that grow our manufacturing base and helps us to compete, not capitulate. Reduce the tax and regulatory burdens that encourage offshoring of high tech production (and education). Instead of pleading for the gubmint to reevaluate and overhaul our immigration policies to attract more foreign talent, we can and should also create an environment that attracts the world’s best industrial companies to produce in the US. (And not simply rely on currency valuations to do that.)

This is what will fix the labor shortage. We know how to build these ‘schools.’ We’re pretty darned good at it. We just have to be allowed to do it again, to keep a lot more than just manufacturing off the endangered list.