Manufacture Your Future

Last week, I attended the CBIA Manufacture Your Future Career Expo II at the Connecticut Expo Center in Hartford. I also went last year when the event was held at the Connecticut Convention Center. This year, it was a similar format, and it seemed like there was more buzz and industry interest. I guess that another year of growth impacting skill shortages will do that. Despite the overall economic slowdown, the manufacturing sector has been a bright spot for the US economy. Durable goods are being produced at a record pace, especially those that are long lead time (e.g. aircraft and construction/farm equipment), those that are energy sector related (e.g. oil and gas drilling products), and those that deal with the medical sector (e.g. instrumentation and implants). Don’t let the collapse of the residential real estate market and subsequent decline in the production of building materials production shake you up. Also, don’t let the demise of the US based auto/truck industry hurt your feelings either. Manufacturing segments that have had solid productivity improvement are still competitive with the rest of the world, especially the low cost Asian region.

In Connecticut, aerospace and defense are the dominant markets for the remaining (any numerous) legacy manfuacturing companies that have made the cut after years of challenging conditions. Most manufacturers in New England have seen awesome growth in the past 36 months. In Connecticut, it is aerospace driving that growth. Still, most companies state in surveys that their number one constraint to additional growth is the lack of qualified skilled labor. Machinists just aren’t a product of the school system anymore. Manufacturing careers still have a stigma that sticks after years of steady decline. The mass layoffs ond outsourcing of the post-Gulf War 1990’s have left deep scars.

At Horst Engineering, we have several openings for CNC Swiss screw machine set-up operators, lathe set-up operators, milling set-up operators, thread rolling operators, and centerless grinders. We could use good help in every area of our manufacturing operation. The demographics of the industry show that there will be mass retirements in the next 10 years when the workers of the post-WWII baby boom generation leave the industry in droves. Engineering, science, and manufacturing will be hurting for good people.

That is why CBIA is trying to do something. The career expo was designed to show high school students why manufacturing is still alive and kicking. The pyrotechnics, loud music, and computerized focus were all tactics used to appeal to Generation Y or Z or whatever they are calling teens nowadays. In my opinion, you have to get to kids in elementary school. Their career aspirations are formed at an early age. They need to know that manufacturing is a clean, well paying, and good option. Not every kid is destined for college, but that is another topic for another time. I’ve really enjoyed Hartford Courant writer Rick Green’s column lately, so I’ll leave it to him to make that argument.

When all of this energy crisis rhetoric dies down, the infrastructure of the manufacturing economy is going to still be in place. The need for North American (US, Mexico, AND Canada) manufacturing is going to be essential. Yes, the focus will be on the niche, high mix/low volume precision industries (e.g. aerospace, medical, after market automotive, etc.); but we will be here. The Asian backlash is well underway. We have seen a lot of interest in Mexico in recent months as this oil shock has come to a head. Today’s Wall Street Journal has a Page One story on this topic.

But, we need kids to think about a future in manufacturing. We need dozens and dozens (just in Connecticut) of not-for-profit organizations and agencies to get on the same page. Everyone is trying to solve the problem and no on is working together. The employers need to stop stealing each other’s key help and start trying in increase the supply of qualified candidates.

At the Expo last week, one plastic injection molding demonstration explained how Apple iPods are made. Not exactly a high precision low volume product. Still, the molder made his point by using an iconic brand and product. The kids were digging it. Now if we could only get the eyeballs (and ears) off the iPods and onto the career opportunities in manufacturing.

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