Dean Barber

Archive for August, 2018|Monthly archive page

What Shop Class Did for Me

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 14, 2018 at 12:47 pm

Among us boys, Wilhelm Wolfskill gained immediate cult-hero status with a single utterance.

“Willie,” as we called him behind his back, was our “shop class” teacher at South Lebanon Middle School in Lebanon, Pa. I’m guessing the year was 1968 or 1969, and I was in either in seventh or eighth grade.

Willie was showing us the proper way to use a mallet and chisel, and we were gathered around him when he said something in his heavy German accent that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

“Ach du Lieber, who let der schmelly von?” (Translation: Good heavens, who farted?)

Even my father cracked up when he heard that.

In addition to that memorable quote, I have something else that has remained with me from Willie’s shop class – a small, wooden foot bench that I made 50 years ago. It’s not much to look at, then or now.

But it meant a lot to me then to a 13-year-old boy who was much confused about the world. And it means a lot to me today as a 63-year-old man who still gets much confused on occasion. It’s why I have kept it.

Goggles and Aprons

Back then, shops class was formally known as “industrial arts,” and it was mandatory for all boys. (There were no girls in class.) I remember the goggles and the dark blue aprons that we had to wear and how the loud shrieking table saw absolutely terrified me.

I imagined losing control of a piece of wood while guiding it through the circular saw blade and the board snapping back and smashing into my face. I was much more relaxed with a handsaw.

If memory serves me right, my first shop class was strictly woodworking, but I remember being introduced to welding in school (no aptitude there), so I may have had a second shop class along the way. Mind you, this was middle school, before high school.

There was a degree of self-satisfaction in making my simple little foot bench. More importantly, shop class gave me the opportunity to figure out for myself that I was not nearly as mechanically inclined as my father, who was a metallurgical engineer. That realization would help me later make career choices.

Other classmates built things that made my little foot bench look like child’s play. They, too, probably made career choices, at least partially influenced by what they learned about themselves and their abilities in shop class. In that regard, shop class served us all well.

Finding the Good and the Bad

Today in my role as a consultant to economic development organizations and companies, it pleases me greatly when I come across communities that have established robust vocational education and training programs, both at the high school level and in local community colleges.

In my book, that’s always a good thing because it ensures a pipeline of talent for local employer, but it also usually indicates a willingness of educators and local employers to work together.

Likewise, I have been to communities where there is a profound lack of effort or resources devoted to what educators now call “career technical education” or CTE. It may have once been offered, but all such efforts have been seriously eroded or abandoned.

Not long ago, I was in town that had a community college, but all the industrial trades were taught at a sister campus in another town 80 miles away. Lucky kids living there.

Then there was that community college offering courses in aircraft maintenance, which was fine except that there was virtually no aviation presence in the community. The nearest commercial airport was more than 100 miles away.

The head economic developer in another community once told me that he had never had a sit-down meeting with the president of the local community college, that they in fact had no working relationship and barely knew each other.

I can remember a plant manager of metal fabrication plant, one of the largest employers in this town, telling me that while he thought the local high school was offering some fairly good vocational training, the community college was offering none. The exception was cosmetology. There were classes being offered in that.

“They are of no help to us. None whatsoever,” the plant manager said.

Recently, I was in a city with a population of 100,000, where there was no community college at all. I thought that was particularly noteworthy, because the city had a long legacy of manufacturing, a sector that still resonates within the local economy.

Incredibly, that same city had four four-year colleges. When I asked about vocational education, the answers were vague and none too encouraging.

A Caste System in the Making

Even as a kid, I could detect a caste system in place. There was the “academic” path for those of us who aspired to go onto college. It’s what our parents and guidance counselors told us we should do.

Then there was the vocational pathway, which we in the academic track derisively referred to as “vo-tech.” The implication was that vo-tech kids were not smart enough to go to college. They had to go to work.

Of course, it was a stupid and wrong way of thinking, but it was indoctrinated into us. I believe that line of thinking is still pervasive today, although many would deny it. (I resisted somewhat, working in a grey-iron foundry for a year after high school before going to college.)

Looking back, I suspect that many of the vo-tech boys actually had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do. They wanted to be machinists, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and such — whereas most of us on the academic track had not a clue.

My own career path became clear after reading “All the President’s Men” in 1974. Written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two reporters at The Washington Post who investigated the first Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, the book cemented the idea that I would pursue a career in journalism.

As it turned out, journalism school at the University of Wisconsin was largely vocational in nature, which was a good thing. And there were no screaming circular saws.

These Other Capabilities

Baby Boomers with sophisticated machine skills, people of my age, are now retiring in droves. At the same time, many parents, teachers and guidance counselors continue to discourage young people from pursuing careers in the industrial trades, just as they did when I was a boy.

Over the years, we have created an education system where the emphasis is largely on improving standardized test scores and getting students ready for four-year colleges, while building actual job skills is given short shrift. When you think about it, we are so dependent of the people who make and repair and drive and do the sometimes dirty jobs that we cannot or will not do.

“The work of electricians, builders, plumbers, chefs, paramedics, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, security staff, and all the rest is absolutely vital to the quality of each of our lives,” wrote Ken Robinson, Ph.D, wrote in his book “Creative Schools, The Element, Finding Your Element and Out of Our Minds.”

 “Yet the demands of academic testing mean that schools often aren’t able to focus on these other capabilities.”

The No. 1 Business Problem Today

Manufacturers have been telling us for some time now that our schools are not turning out enough graduates with the math and science proficiency necessary to operate and repair computer-controlled factory equipment. It’s about time we listen.

While there are some indications that CTE may finally be gaining new life (last month President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at improving vocational education and job training), one of the most important business stories of 2018 is the difficulty that employers are having in finding qualified employees to fill a record 6.7 million job openings.

“Business’ number one problem is finding qualified workers. At the current pace of job growth, if sustained, this problem is set to get much worse,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said in a statement. “These labor shortages will only intensify across all industries and company sizes.”

It Takes Two to Tango

The only way that I see for us to meet this problem head on is through creating partnerships between business and education. Mind you, that is far easier said than done. That’s because educators and business people, particularly manufacturers, tend to speak past each other in different tribal languages.

For a meaningful partnership to happen, companies must assess their human resources needs in terms of numbers and what skill sets they want future employees to have and communicate that information to educators. It may also entail employers donating equipment, personnel and money to get vocational training programs at schools off the ground.

For their part, educators need to listen, ask questions and truly be responsive in trying to determine the needs of the companies. It may also entail schools hiring additional personnel with backgrounds in the trades to do the teaching.

The point is that if both sides talk, listen and do their respective agreed-upon parts, then real partnerships can be formed. It just takes two to tango.

And the truth is that I have seen this beautiful dance in multiple places. Northwest Georgia is just one example. The Georgia Northwestern Technical College, serving nine counties from six campuses, offers credit and noncredit programs designed to meet the needs of individual companies and consortia of companies with similar needs.

The school seeks out these partnerships. It’s a lovely dance when it happens and it can happen in more places if we only try to make it so. Where there is a will, there is a way.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, an economic development and corporate location consulting firm based in Dallas. Dean is available as a keynote speaker and can be reached at Visit us at to learn more.


What Economic Developers Should Do

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 5, 2018 at 8:43 pm

The email was labeled “Question.”

It came from an old friend, who is not so old as he is younger than me. My friend was also once my boss when we worked together at the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama back in the 1990s.

Don Erwin’s email was curious by the fact that he is one very knowledgeable and experienced economic developer. He gave me permission to share his email.

Economic developers are sometimes criticized for confusing “activity” with results. I think, most of the time, they clearly know the difference, but their challenge is how to produce results.

”Trade shows? OK. Visit site consultants? OK. Have a nice website? OK. Woo the state economic developers? OK. But what beyond that? The employees at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama clearly know what they need to do to turn out 1,200 cars/day, but it is much less clear for economic developers what to do. Any thoughts you have about this are appreciated. – Don”

For the uninitiated, economic developers are charged with creating jobs and investment in local economies, although they actually do neither. But that is how they are typically judged. They are part teacher, sales person, cheerleader and evangelist. They are, by and large, interesting people.

First, Get Out of Bed

What to do. We face that question every morning when we get out of bed. Sometimes it only hits me with my first cup of coffee.

In his email, Don mentioned some strategies pertaining to business attraction. He also mentioned “results.” Two things come to mind. First, I have come to realize over the years that there’s much more to economic development than business attraction. Second, focusing on results is, I hate to use this cliche, putting the cart before the horse. I will explain.

Maybe 18 or 20 years ago, I took an IEDC class taught by Laith Wardi, who founded a company in 1996 called ExecutivePulse. That class, more so than any other, revealed to me another facet of economic development other than “buffalo hunting,” which was my job at EDPA. (Never mind that I actually own a long-barreled .45-70 Sharps rifle.)

As most jobs are created by existing industry, I now know that business retention and expansion should be a primary focus for most economic development organizations. Laith preached that gospel and the heavens parted for me.

Later, he introduced me to Erik Collins in Montgomery County, Ohio. Erik puts the theory of BR&E into practice. I am so glad to have befriended these two men.

The Importance of Startups

Over the years I also came to understand the importance of entrepreneurial growth, that is, business startups to a local economy. We know that many large businesses have very humble beginnings, having been started in people’s garages. Apple, Disney and Harley Davidson come to mind. I think it is important to remember that.

Research from the Kauffman Foundation indicates that new and young companies are not only a primary source of job creation in the American economy but also inject competition into markets and spur innovation.

I saw that firsthand during a recent trip to Erie, Pennsylvania, where I spent three days doing what was essentially a mini-SWOT. The trip was made possible largely through the efforts of Laith, who lives in Erie.

No doubt my best meeting during my time in Erie was meeting with entrepreneurs, many of whom I would describe as “techies”, at a 24/7/365 incubator called Radius CoWork in an office building downtown.

Forget that most business startups will fail, successful entrepreneurs rightly figure, “damn the statistics, full speed ahead.” The entrepreneurs that I met in Erie were that gung-ho bunch.

Debunking the Myths

There are many myths about entrepreneurship. One is that most successful entrepreneurs are young. We think of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, who were in their early twenties when they launched what would become world-changing companies. Those are great business stories.

But research shows that the average age of a successful startup founder is 45. (I started BBA when I was 50.) The truth is that the average entrepreneur has worked in business for years before starting their own business. Despite that, many venture capitalists operate under the mistaken belief that youth is the elixir of successful entrepreneurship.

Another myth is that small business is the employment engine of the economy. As the Kauffman Foundation points out, when it comes to job creation, it is not the size of the business that matters as much as it is the age.

Growing the Growers

So back to Don’s question, as to what economic developers should do. If we know that new businesses create jobs, then shouldn’t we be trying to grow the growers?

There are thousands of early stage entrepreneurship support programs across the U.S. Generally, they fall into four categories — accelerators, incubators and coworking spaces (what I saw at Radius CoWork in Erie), events and competitions, and formal degree or educational programs.

I’m not sure if you can actually teach people to become entrepreneurs, but you can educate them and give them tools that will help them grow their businesses and become better at what they do.

To be sure, there is overlap between these different types of programs out there. I tend to like accelerators, which work with startups for usually three or four months. In addition to guidance, they also offer capital. In exchange, accelerators usually get an equity position in the startup company.

There are four factors that make accelerators distinct from the other models, according to Susan Cohen, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Richmond. They are fixed-term, cohort-based, mentor-driven, and culminate in a graduation or demo day.

All the Above

The more you look at it, the more you begin to understand that economic development is a very broad field with lots of moving parts. It is why there are now specialists in the fields of business attraction, business retention and expansion and business startups.

Back in 2012, President Barack Obama spoke of “an all-of-the-above” energy strategy for the 21st century. He was referring to developing and using a combination of various resources to meet energy needs that included nonrenewable resources (coal, crude oil, and natural gas) and renewable resources (solar, wind, nuclear power, hydroelectric power, and biofuels).

Economic development organizations should take heed and develop their own “all-of-the-above” strategy. Economic development is not only about business recruitment. Nor is it only about BR&E or business startups. It truly is about all of the above.

Finally, this all-of-the-above approach requires that economic developers truly become students of business. Surprisingly, I find many who are not.

One Bite at a Time

Don attended the University of Alabama and is a big fan of that school’s football program. Coach Nick Saban, who has won five national championships in his 11 years at Alabama, is a firm believer in focusing on daily progress and not the end results.

Do your work, do it well, and when you find success, do it again and always strive for continual improvement. This is the Toyota Way (kaizen) and the embodiment of Saban’s “process.”

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Economic development is the elephant. It is a massively big field. No person or organization can master it all, we can only strive to get better. (Saban teams don’t win championships every year.)

That is precisely what economic developers can and should do – work on improving the business environment of their communities and how they do their jobs. If they focus every day on progress, the results, the investment and job creation, will follow.

This is what I told community stakeholders in Erie. This is what I would tell community stakeholders anywhere.

We’ll End with Crass Self Promotion

I am somewhat reluctant to tell you that we can offer communities an affordable “mini-SWOT,” similar to what we did in Erie. It just so happened that Erie wanted me to not only to give my impressions to community stakeholders, but also make my views public by writing the blog.

It was a gutsy move on their part. Certainly, it has sparked debate within the community, which is a good thing.

Some communities, however, might not want to go the “public” route, but would prefer a report made available to stakeholders only. In other words, I wouldn’t write a blog for the world to read.

However, we would still provide that hard look, pointing out the good and the not so good. (All communities have strengths and weaknesses.) Sometimes you need that outside perspective to bring about change.

Of course, we can also offer our full-fledged BBA Action Formula which takes a deeper dive and offers more than an assessment or any strategic plan.

Enough on that. I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, an economic development and corporate location consulting firm based in Dallas. Dean is available as a keynote speaker and can be reached at Visit us at to learn more.