Manufacturing’s lost its cultural mojo. Here’s how to get it back.

By Bart Taylor | Sep 16, 2014

Later this month in Colorado Springs, over 1000 high-school age kids and 500 or so community college students will visit the Southern Colorado Manufacturing Expo & Conference to view demonstrations and interact with industry, suppliers and service. It’s what manufacturer’s have been asking for - and need: visibility to a next-generation workforce.

How many of these kids will end up choosing manufacturing as a career? More than in recent history, I’d guess. We seem to be coming around to the notion that the career track we’ve established for young people needs to change, that not all high-school graduates need be shoehorned into a four-year college program.

The alternative - more families choosing vocational schooling - would be welcome in the manufacturing sector. But reform is also on the minds of the professional sector: the data say that employers believe higher education is doing a so-so job of preparing college graduates for the needs of today’s employers.

The ‘skills-gap’ that bedevils manufacturing is acute. We know why there’s a gap: manufacturing was offshored, for cheap labor, mainly; with jobs left a commitment to train a new generation of makers; business leaders assumed the U.S. would continue to lead in innovation without making stuff; and the subsequent push to maintain our innovation acumen and staff the service-economy-on-steroids has overhyped a need to send every kid to Harvard in search of a professional degree.

So manufacturing’s lost its cultural mojo. A factory job used to carry with it social status. Not today.

How to get it back? How can we convince families that it’s OK to consider manufacturing careers as an option to a four-year degree? Secondly, if the sector can recapture the imagination of a new workforce, do we know how to train them?

Both are big undertakings.

Consider job training. It’s conventional wisdom that the apprenticeships and job-shadowing methods developed by Germany and others are effective not only in preparing students for manufacturing careers but create a sustainable pipeline for talent once established.

But will European-style apprenticeships ever become a mainstream educational model in the U.S? I have my doubts. They represent a radical departure from today’s socially favored career pathways. And a collective disdain for many things ‘Euro’ is a barrier to vocational training. These things aren’t changed easily; higher-ed is change-averse.

Apprenticeships will instead be part of a comprehensive plan if not the centerpiece. It will fall on industry to lead the way. We can inform higher-ed how to develop curricula, we can provide community colleges more resources and we can facilitate ongoing communication to identify the skills needed in the future. We can convince the business community that what was lost as we offshored our ‘maker’ capacity can’t be easily fixed without a robust domestic manufacturing sector.

But to regain a powerful cultural connection to manufacturing, to once again celebrate vocational work, manufacturers must first capture the imagination of a new labor pool.

An important step is highlighting the maker economy that appeal to young people - like beer, food, and high-tech manufacturing - alongside the anchors of the industry who cut, bend, fabricate and weld.

It probably starts with ‘blocking and tackling’: celebrating the companies who’ve sustained and are again emerging as a strategic players in the U.S. economy.

Fifteen hundred or so K-12 and community college students will be onhand in two weeks, in Colorado Springs, to get a firsthand look, to see what manufacturing has to offer. Industry must show up. Represent.

You asked for it. You got it.