In my quest for answers and meaning, sometimes I can find only shades or the merest hints of truth. And when that happens, I consider myself lucky. I figure that I am at least getting warmer.
More often than not, I only turn up confusion — lodged in myself and in others, the latter, of course, being much easier recognized. I have concluded that no truer words were ever penned than that of cartoonist Walt Kelley: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
As my regular reader(s) know (thank you, my dear wife), I have been consumed of late with thoughts of an America that could maintain and might even grow its manufacturing base. To do this, I believe we must embark on a national manufacturing strategy, which would include as a primary component a commitment by our public and private sectors to partner together to invest in our human capital.
Ok, let’s pare it down into plainer English. We need to do a better job at training our people to work in manufacturing. Industry executives and educators need to talk.
This is especially true at a time when U.S. manufacturers face a 20 percent additional cost burden compared to companies operating in our largest nine trading partner countries, principally because our corporate taxes now rank the highest. Also, we face these challenges when about 13 million of our citizens are out of work and are actively looking for jobs, and yet US manufacturers contend they struggle to find qualified people to fill job vacancies.
Clearly, something is amiss.
Hard Times Still With Us
If what our manufacturers are saying is true – that, in effect, we are fast becoming a nation of boobs, unqualified for most tasks beyond sprinkling our lawns and that most of our young people would prefer cage fighting to working in their factories – then hard times may still come knocking at our door.
You see, it is manufacturing, not the satanic practice of derivatives speculation or casino banking, that sustains wealth in our nation. And if we abandon manufacturing wholesale, as some policy wonks would suggest, we are in for a tough slog ahead.
Manufacturers are not shy about telling anyone who will listen that they are being treated akin to lepers. Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute and speaking at a workforce conference in the Dallas-Fort Worth area earlier this week, told me the story of a manufacturing executive who was disinvited from a jobs fair.
In other words, he was told to leave — We don’t need your kind around here. (My words, not hers as she was very urbane.)
Not For My Kids
I happen to subscribe to this conventional wisdom – that manufacturing is a shunned class – largely because I have written about it before (See March 11 blog, “Mama’s, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be …,” which means it has to be true.
Actually, we are schizophrenic about manufacturing. We may concede that it is important for our nation’s economy and even our local economy, we just don’t want our sons and daughters working in manufacturing plants.
It would be easy, too easy, in fact, to blame parents and schools for this gulf. The truth is that nobody, but nobody, has clean hands here. There is plenty of guilt to be spread around, so much so that we should all be slathered in it.
As Ms. McNelly pointed out in her presentation to North America’s Corridor Coalition, Inc. (NASCO), just as most educators have never been in manufacturing plants, most manufacturers have never reached out to schools
“Manufacturers were as much responsible for this situation as students, parents, and schools. During the leaning process, many companies cut their training budgets to a minimum, eliminating the traditional, months-long training programs that new hires would enter. Few manufacturers had a choice in this regard though, because the cost of such programs was now prohibitive in the global economy,” she said.
How About a Reality Check?
Peter Capelli, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, says companies are typically seeking job candidates who would need no training whatsoever (remember, they probably ditched their in-house training program) and could hit the ground running so to speak. But is that truly realistic?
“One can’t get work experience in school, and that’s where training comes in. Further, almost none of the candidates employers are looking for are recent graduates. They want experienced workers,” Capelli wrote for the Wall Street Journal last fall.
“A few employers said the amount of money they had to pay to get the talent they needed was outrageous. Indeed, many of the employers who report that there is a shortage of qualified candidates go on to say that qualified candidates won’t take the jobs at the wages they are offering them.
“At this point, it may be uncomfortable but still necessary to bring up how markets work. There is a difference between saying we can’t find anyone to hire and saying that we can’t or don’t want to pay the wages needed to hire.”
So let me get this straight, professor, what you are saying is that SOME manufacturers no longer offer in-house training and SOME manufacturers are cheap. Is that right, professor? As I have had a telephone conversation with Dr. Cappelli, I will answer for him. “Bingo.”
It’s Not My Job
Capelli says that as long as manufacturers are of the belief that it is the job of someone else – principally community colleges – to train their workforce, we are going to have some big disconnects. That is not a cut at community colleges. They can and should be part of the mix, part of a public-private partnership.
But community colleges alone, and I don’t care how good their programs are, cannot realistically carry the entire load upon themselves. Certain things, by virtue of the work itself, cannot be learned in a classroom but are better suited for hands on training. And despite the costs involved, more manufacturers are going to have to reinstate in-house training, complete with industry certification of skills, in order to better compete and ensure a talent pipeline.
If the enemy really is us, then we can only win if we invest in ourselves. And more manufacturers are going to have to step up to the plate and initiate in-house training.
Desperados Waiting for a Train
Generally speaking, I like reporters, economic developers and real estate brokers. As members of oppressed groups, they have a certain air of desperation, a hungry countenance, about them that I have come to admire.
Of course, one could argue that this is true of most business people. I have come to believe that at least some level of stress is actually good for you. It forces you out of bed and into the world to scratch and claw in an effort to keep the lights on and pay for pizza deliveries. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. Civilization, after all, has resulted.
In short, we were meant for work and not to picnic away our lives, although I do like a good ham on rye.
And while I have only spotty contact with reporters and brokers these days, I do meet with economic developers rather frequently. Their aim is to inform and impress upon me the business attributes and happenings within their respective communities. As a site selection consultant, I welcome these visits because I learn. And sometimes I even get a good lunch to boot.
It Takes Two to Tango
I learn what initiatives that they are engaged in, which could prove helpful to a future client down the road. It also gives me an opportunity to develop personal relationships, in which business so often hinges upon. In short, I like to know who I might be dealing with. As they might need me for a project, I might need them to help craft and fashion a deal.
So it’s in everyone’s best interests that we become acquainted and perhaps even chummy.
“Hey, Bob, how’s that new colonoscopy bag treating you?”
“Fine, Dean. Out on the golf course with it just yesterday. No runs, no leaks, no errors.”
“No kidding. That’s great. I need to get me one of those.”
“No, you don’t.”
In the past two weeks alone, I have met with economic developers from Missouri, Kansas, Florida, Michigan and Maine. They come to Dallas in packs to call upon a concentration of people who dare hold themselves up as site selection consultants, of which I am one, and who could, at least in theory, bring them (the economic developers) projects.
Pity the Poor Brokers
Many of the site selectors are real estate brokers, that oppressed class that I mentioned earlier and to which I am not a member. Unlike brokers, I do not work on a commission basis to put a client in a particular building or on a particular site. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not my focus or forte.
Rather, I hold myself out to be a location investigator. As I like to say, I take clients where they need to be — an optimal location (and site) for future operations. Certainly the real estate aspect is central to making that happen (and sometimes brokers will be involved), but I think it is safe to say that I approach site selection from a different angle than most brokers. I am not saying that my more holistic approach is better (even if it is), I’m just saying.
But again, I admire industrial brokers because they have had to muster up the courage and not a few street smarts to withstand what has been a de-industrialization trend in this country from 2000-2010, when we lost 5.5 manufacturing jobs and an average of 15 plant closings a day.
“I have never seen it this bad,” one industrial broker told me at a recent Texas Rangers game in Arlington, hosted by an entourage of economic developers from a particular state that will remain unnamed.
“Yes,” I nodded in a thoughtful and sympathetic manner. “Hey, how were those chicken burritos?”
So, gentle readers, take pity on brokers, economic developers and even newspaper reporters. They struggle in a new man-bites-dog world. I have been employed with two of the three battered professions, and finding wisdom in song, I quote from the Grateful Dead, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
Dean Barber is the principal/owner of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com