Why the effort to rebrand manufacturing continues to miss the mark

By Bart Taylor | May 20, 2014

A Washington Post business article published last week, headlined, There are some jobs now in manufacturing. Kids just aren’t interested in taking them”, was noteworthy on two counts. For one it summed up the workforce challenge in manufacturing without losing sight of the sector's albatross: a more qualified workforce may be slow to materialize unless the perception of a manufacturing career profoundly changes.

Also of note was that mainstream business media covered the story at all. Certainly in Denver, in Colorado, one's hard pressed to find any coverage of manufacturing issues.

The irony is that for the manufacturing economy to make a comeback that some forecast, the sector would benefit from more media visibility. Today's maker economy is a couple generations removed from industrial-only sector of the mid-to-late 1900’s, but for some the imagery of hard hats and welders continues to define the sector. The challenge is how to change the public’s perception of manufacturing.

Two features published in today’s CompanyWeek convey a different look. Eldon James and Hope Foods, companies in different market sectors, are compelling examples of the tech-driven, modern manufacturers who are less often seen but very prevalent. It’s become conventional wisdom that to change the manufacturing brand, images of bending, shaping, fabricating and cutting must fade away.

But it’s a mistake to tell only part of the manufacturing story or demean the blue-collar component that’s built-in to the fabric of the maker economy. Some of the most compelling stories we publish are of companies that build stuff, big stuff. Check out today’s Wazee Companies profile.

Certainly technology has changed manufacturing. Jobs are less dangerous, less dirty. But other differences are more meaningful and inform today's manufacturing brand in a positive way, including the breadth of the what’s now being made in the U.S., the growing prospects for collaboration between makers as a result, and the shifting perceptions of the value of today's university degree. Young, smart people are beginning to realize that launching and owning a business, for example, is a fantastic option. Entrepreneurship is again cool - especially in those sectors at the intersection of lifestyle and business. (Or as my friend Chuck Sullivan likes to say, “of lifestyle and commerce.”)

Manufacturers are also connecting in surprising ways, borrowing products and processes for use in new applications. Eldon James is leveraging technology and products perfected in bioscience for use in making beer. “What we found is that our antimicrobial tubing that has been accepted very well in medical…is very effective at inhibiting bacteria that spoils beer, and also wine spoiling bacteria, “ says Marcia Coulson, president and co-founder of the company. An EJ beverage division was launched this year.

Hope Foods is likewise managing bacterial contamination - with technology that’s been around for decades but just know becoming mainstream in food preparation.

We may be aspiring to rebrand the wrong stuff. The tale of manufacturing today is one of large and small companies, of brewmasters, designers, and organic growers alongside machinists, welders and equipment operators, fueled by technology and inspired by innovation that’s jumping from one industry sector to another.

This isn’t necessarily how industry, its trade groups or government or media, tend to view the issue. Here, maker groups and government efforts tend to align vertically, by industry. Or, by company size: larger businesses able to buy memberships or pay for lobbying. Or, by geography.

For their part media are in a strategic retreat, limiting not expanding their gaze and largely incapable of rebranding anything that’s not to do with the service-related advertising dollars we incessantly chase.

A more practical plan to rebrand manufacturing would be to bring together companies and visionaries from different industries, in media and in person, to share ideas that will drive more innovation and collaboration. The companies that benefit will be a magnet for kids who want high- paying jobs out of college, not an extended stay in the parent’s basement.

Let’s showcase the entire breadth and impact of the new maker economy – hardhats, kitchens, cleanrooms and cranes.

And read about in the Washington Post.