Dean Barber

But Not Just Any People

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on April 20, 2014 at 6:12 am

I surely had not planned it that way, but my remarks at the Southern Economic Development Council’s “Meet the Consultants” conference in Dallas last week very much fell in line what I had written only a few days earlier in a strategic plan for a rural county in Georgia.

And it was essentially this: If you truly want to compete and win manufacturing projects in the future, people are the key. But not just any people — you must have the people who can perform in the digitized factories of the future.

Consider this: The U.S. Department of Labor says there are about 300,000 job openings in manufacturing, while some employer surveys indicate that might be a low number.

It is apparent that as manufacturing processes become increasingly automated and IT driven (translation: more productive), companies will need fewer people, but those who will be needed will be armed with basic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.

“And although the extent to which robots take hold of manufacturing remains to be seen. What is indisputable is that the sector is entering a transformative phase,” I told my audience of several hundred economic developers.

“The winners will be those communities that can adapt and meet the demand for higher-paid, skilled workers—manufacturing engineers who design and improve high-tech machinery and the systems linking it together; process specialists who oversee operations and improve their efficiency; and maintenance technicians who install, monitor, repair, and upgrade the advanced equipment.”

More Self-Directed and Engaged

Now if you listen to plant managers (and I do), these highly-skilled workers are not a dime a dozen. They’re out there, but it often takes work to find them. Meanwhile, experienced and knowledgeable old hands, technical talent developed over years on factory floors across America, continue to retire.

Replacing them is what keeps many plant managers up at night wondering just how they will pull that off.

As I relayed to my audience at SEDC and in my strategic/action plan/target industry study for Screven County, Ga., the factory workers of the future will be more self-directed and engaged with the following attributes:

• Ability to collaborate with other people
• Analytical skills
• Basic math, engineering skills
• Ability to innovate
• Computer-based skills

These factory workers of the future will be working on spotless plant floors where production processes will be largely digitized, which means that IT will be instrumental in making decisions, and where production capability/flexibility trumps capacity. To my gathered audience at SEDC, I said this said:

“Now you might be able to offer a company a great building or a great site. You might even be able to put together a very attractive incentive package with property and sales tax abatements, and grants and the like.

“But if you cannot offer an advanced manufacturing company the workforce of the future, if your community is not turning out the workers who can man the factory of the future, well that company would be at a distinct disadvantage if it erroneously chose your community.

“And I would recommend, should that manufacturing company employ my services on a site selection project, that we set our sights on those communities that are putting a premium on STEM education in their local schools and offer robust technical training where industry is truly a partner. That’s the community that I would advise a manufacturing client to consider – that which goes beyond simply a building or a site.”

Don’t get me wrong, we are also looking for a good building and/or site that meets the need of the client company. But the workforce needs of a manufacturer today can hardly be overstated, something that many real estate brokers just don’t get.

Get Them Dancing

So if I were an economic developer in a community targeting manufacturing as a source of jobs for the future, one of my top priorities would be to get manufacturers and educators in a room together on a regular basis.

They may come from different tribes and talk different languages and will initially be wary of each other, but if you get them meeting together long and often enough, mutual areas of interest will emerge and trust will form. And then you might actually get something done that establishes a real pipeline of talent for both existing industry and prospective employers who might consider your community for a new plant.

Now I have never been in a community where the local economic developer acknowledges that the local community college, where most vocational training now typically takes place – how should I say this delicately? — sucks (a technical term meaning substandard) at doing that.

On the contrary, just about every economic developer that I have met goes to great length to assure me how responsive the local community college (and high school) is to the needs of existing manufacturers — that the schools and local industry are literally joined at the hip. But when I talk behind closed doors to the plant managers, well, I’ll often hear a different story.

So why the apparent disconnect? Now that is an interesting question. Let me say this — it would be unfair and wrong to simply blame the educators. I believe manufacturers have a responsibility to reach out and communicate their needs to educators, and I would hazard a guess that most, busy doing their things, simply do not do that.

So it takes two to tango. My advice to economic developers is to try to get these two disparate groups together onto the dance floor. With patience and continued effort, good things will happen.

Fellowship with Food

You have heard, no doubt, the old saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, this past week, some very nice economic developers from the Southeast were trying to get to my heart. Or maybe give me heartburn.

I was with economic developers from Alabama for dinner on Monday night, where I got to see some old friends from my days with the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. It was over dinner that Ed Castile, the director of AIDT, one of the premier state-sponsored training programs in the country, revealed that he was a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, something we both have in common.

The next night, Tuesday, I joined a delegation of economic developers from Mississippi Power and several cities from that state for dinner at a downtown Dallas steakhouse where I dined on buffalo steak and, get this, chicken fried lobster.

As a self-described southerner (I also have Midwestern roots so I am in reality more of a hybrid), I am partial to fried foods, knowing full well that it might shave a few years off my life. So be it, I will go out happy. By the way, Texas is the first and only place where I have found “Chicken Fried Chicken” on menus. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

But with all due respect to my friends in Alabama and Mississippi, my most memorable meal last week took place not at a restaurant but at a private home in rural Georgia.

Back in Screven County

On Wednesday morning, I flew from Dallas to Savannah and then drove with my friend and fellow consultant Jason Hamman 50 miles north to rural Screven County. It’s there where we were invited to a low-country boil (think shrimp, sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob in a big pot) at the home of a board member of the Screven Development Authority.

The board was holding this party for us without yet learning the results of our report. They would hear our findings and recommendations the next day. I mentioned that night that they might want to hold off and hear what we had to say before throwing us a party.

But despite our frank and sometimes tough assessments, which we gave the following morning, board members appreciated our efforts and thanked us for our service.

I don’t mind telling you that I made friends in Screven County, a rural place of great civility and charm, a place with deep farming roots but also where a sophisticated manufacturing tradition exists. In some ways, it is the quintessential rural community.

It would be a great place for me to escape the big city and hide on occasion, lick my wounds and maybe knock out a screenplay or a novel. (I was offered a remote cabin, which would be perfect for doing just that.)

But if that ever happens, well, it will be somewhere down the road.

In the meantime, I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

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  1. Dean, I could not agree with you more that business needs to get in the room with educators to discuss exactly how education can prepare students for the real world of work (and educators need to go out to visit these businesses to see what these jobs really are)…. Facilitating this should be the role of the local workforce investment board (WIB) however…and I did not hear you mention the WIB in your comments at all. Economic developers need to work with WIB’s as a resource…not overstep and try to do the job they should be doing for them. If we all work together, we can create a well-oiled and meaningful system that works for everyone.

  2. Dean, I love the idea of having a local economic developer put manufacturing executives and teacher in the same room. I’ve just NEVER seen it happen in reality. Also, the people who complain to me the most about the local teachers are the local chamber of commerce staff. And when I hear a plant manager complain about the kind of workers in the community and the lack of local people applying for jobs then I ask two questions: How often are you going into schools to present directly to the students and How have you adjusted your training programs to train up new workers. The answers to both questions are often: We don’t have time for that. So developing a worker pipeline is obviously NOT a priority for many of these manufacturing managers. And I think the local economic developers realize that this is not a real priority so they don’t use their influence to sit manufacturers and educators together for a nice meal and good conversation.

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