Why the latest, greatest effort to ‘re-brand’ manufacturing may miss the mark

By Bart Taylor | Nov 12, 2013

A common theme that runs through most of our weekly business profiles is the challenge of workforce. Regardless of industry Colorado manufacturers can’t find enough qualified employees. It’s the Colorado jobs paradox: unemployment here remains relatively high, but a lack of qualified occupational workers is a drag on economic growth, or at least on the manufacturing sector.

The reality certainly isn’t lost on policy-makers. Earlier this year, the Colorado Legislature earmarked a million dollars or so in HB1165, career ‘pathway’ legislation that would effectively improve coordination between higher-ed and industry to better match graduates with jobs.

For its part industry is intent on ‘re-branding’ manufacturing, on changing the perception of the sector from the “dirty, dumb, dangerous, and dying” business of old to the modern, clean, ‘advanced’ state of much of the industrial base today. The idea is to fundamentally change the way young people and their families view manufacturing employment.

IndustryWeek columnist Patricia Panchak suggests that so far, the effort has failed, and that the latest iteration of this approach is likewise destined to miss the mark. The effort focuses on changing industry parlance to better reflect today’s workforce.

“The Association for Manufacturing Technology, noting that the term "workforce" doesn't speak to the more intellectually demanding nature of factory work, has coined the term "smartforce." Meanwhile...the Reshoring Initiative suggests that we begin referring to the "midskill" occupations as professions and the workers as professionals as is done in Germany and Switzerland. No mother wants her children to grow up to be workers, he says. She wants them to be professionals. Besides, he adds, "as manufacturing skilled workers take on more mental and less physical responsibilities, the terminology is increasingly appropriate."

Panchak argues the effort doesn’t far enough, that language alone won’t change things. That until the true ‘value of labor’ again becomes the common language of business, re-instilled in today’s workforce, any effort to rebrand manufacturing will fall short.

It’s hard to argue the point, but as a practical matter, changing the perception of manufacturing here seems more straightforward.

Colorado (and the region) has become the poster-child for what’s cool about manufacturing. Young people come to Colorado to live and work, often in that order, and here more employment opportunities are developing around lifestyle manufacturing. We’re birthing a new generation of entrepreneurs and companies in industry sectors that are highly marketable to the workforce of the future, who view employment through the lens of lifestyle.

Our tactics should evolve to catch-up to with what business is already building here. We need to tell the stories of Colorado growth-companies making beer, electronics, energy-efficient anything, skis, clothes, organic food, and iPhone cases - things interesting and important to young people. Inspire a future workforce with stories of today’s entrepreneurs.

Of course that’s our mission here, but a sustained private/public collaboration would also help. The story of regional manufacturing needs more effective stewardship - not only from government but from its own. Colorado is home to global manufacturing brands. They need to be convinced that ‘here’ is worth investing in.

Investment. The most tangible, impactful development in occupational employment would be hyper-growth in new company launches. More successful launches mean more companies to publicize, which in turn creates higher interest in a modern manufacturing career. Want to change the perception of manufacturing? Make it easier for small makers and manufacturers to get financed.

More on that Mt. Elbert-sized challenge later.