Uptime: We Can Do It!

Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor
 I was overwhelmed and pleased by the feedback regarding my previous column, "The Most Productive Nation," in the January 2007 issue of this magazine…

The United States IS the most productive nation in the world. BUT, we are going to lose our lead BIG TIME unless we wake up to the fact that our competitive edge is slipping as a result of political bickering, flawed assumptions and outdated thinking by many top decision-makers in education, government and business.

We are productive for many, many reasons. Our skilled and knowledgeable workforce continues to show that we can take old plants and make them very competitive. We can take advanced manufacturing practices and leap so far ahead of our competition that it will take them years to catch up-then we'll be just that much further ahead. We can take up a challenge and rally to win in light of seemingly hopeless odds. To do so, however, we have to consciously choose to do things differently.

I recently have seen textile plants and furniture factories in the U.S. that outperform their peers and continue to defy the odds of plant closings and outsourcing. I have seen auto manufacturing plants and suppliers all over the U.S. outperform many of their "Big Three" peers. I have seen young people excited about their jobs in manufacturing and industrial maintenance. I have seen plants where a "can do" attitude prevails, where "whatever it takes" is the motto and where there is real "hustle" in the way people work.

We CAN do it! There is living proof all over America that we can create productive workplaces with meaningful and rewarding careers when:

  1. there is a burning desire to do it;
  2. leadership provides the necessary resources;
  3. organizational teamwork focused on common goals truly exists.

Yet, we continue to be sabotaged by our troubled vocational-technical education system and fl awed perceptions about careers for our younger generations and those who are already working.

Our education system
Many school boards, administrators, teachers and counselors, state and federal education departments, government agenicies, politicians, institutions of "higher learning" and our society as a whole are missing the point. They seem to have lost sight of what it took to build-and will take to maintain-our "Most Productive Nation" status.

Look at our junior-high and high-school programs today. In fact look at these programs for the past 20 to 30 years. What has happened to career education, industrial arts and vocational education for the trades? We, as a nation, have almost completely gotten away from promoting careers in manufacturing. We have avoided discussing careers in industrial maintenance.

Time and again, our news media focuses on "manufacturing job losses" in ways that sound like plant closings rather than productivity improvement and up-skilling of jobs. When manufacturing jobs are transferred (outsourced) to domestic contractors, they are removed from the "manufacturing" roles and added to the "service industry" roles-which makes them appear to be lost manufacturing jobs. This has happened for years with engineers, accountants, information technology (IT) staff and maintenance. Consequently, we are largely becoming an unsustainable "service economy" by default. In turn, our educational leaders respond by de-emphasizing jobs in manufacturing and maintenance, to name but a few.

A college education
In general, our society has assumed and testified that "a college education is essential to get anywhere in life" BUT, at the same time, it has failed to recognize the fact that a post-secondary vocational- technical education, or a certifi cate- or degree-granting program also is a type of "college education." What's wrong here? We focus intently on making sure a generation of children and young adults can pass a test showing the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools, yet many colleges and universities have had to establish "remedial"
classes to compensate for the shortcomings in our
public school programs.

Societal influences
Plato's concept of a fair and just society was one in which all people were able to achieve their potential. Look at how our society promotes that "a college education is the key to success in life." About half of our high school students, however, are NOT "college bound," not prepared for college and will not benefi t from a solid career preparation before they graduate from high school. Thus, this "forgotten half" is being robbed of their true potential. Career education, industrial arts, vocational education classes that prepared many of us "Baby Boomers" (and many of our parents) have almost disappeared. Emphasis on "no child left behind" and college tracks has left little room for educational preparation across the full spectrum of successful, rewarding, meaningful careers.

Let's reflect for a moment on the insights of John W. Gardner, who served as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Johnson administration and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor. He once said:

"We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infi nitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water." (Published in the Saturday Evening Post, December 1, 1962.)

My own pressure for a "college education" was launched almost half a century ago. In 1962, I made the decision to defy my high school counselors (oops, I dated myself). They were pushing me into "college preparation courses," but I chose BOTH college prep AND shop classes, forgoing recommended electives and study halls. I subsequently received my college degrees and then went into teaching students in vocational-technical subjects as a career.

What about today's "humble activities"-our jobs in manufacturing and maintenance? How would you explain what these jobs are, what it takes to be successful and what the rewards are? I guarantee that you and I would most likely answer these questions differently than many of our educators and counselors, politicians and business leaders would.

Occupational outlook
Let's look at the jobs of "Industrial Machinery Mechanics and Maintenance Workers," as defi ned by the 2006-2007 U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Occupational Outlook Handbook. Here, we fi nd the following statement:


"Highly skilled mechanics usually learn their trade through a 4-year apprenticeship program (usually sponsored by a local trade union), while lower skilled maintenance workers receive shortterm on-the-job training in order to perform routine tasks such as setting up, cleaning, lubricating, and starting machinery. Employers prefer to hire those who have completed high school or technical school and have taken courses in mechanical drawing, mathematics, blueprint reading, computers and electronics."

You and I probably would dispute the DOL job description, as well as the education and training requirements it notes, as we refl ect on our own advanced manufacturing practices, equipment reliability problems and/or the shortage of skilled maintenance people in the local labor pools. Trade unions have been in decline for over 30 years. Apprenticeship training programs, union or not, in mechanical maintenance also have declined over the past 30 years. Does that mean that most of our "Industrial Machinery Mechanics and Maintenance Workers" have been trained(?) as "lower skilled maintenance workers with shortterm OJT?"

Following people around and picking up on their knowledge and their methods is unacceptable in today's competitive environment. However, OJT can be very effective, as long as it is formal, structured on-job learning with a skilled coach or trainer and related studies in concepts and theory.

Unfortunately, our 2005-2006 "Status of Maintenance Training in America" survey indicated that most employers listed "informal OJT" as the most used training method measured by "informal performance assessments by supervisors" for maintenance job roles with "no formal skills and knowledge identified."

Most small employers (under 500 employees) seem to struggle with the available time and fi nancial costs of formal workplace training. The largest group (47%) of employed Americans work in establishments ranging from 20 to 249 employees where training budgets largely have been decimated over the past decade or two. (By the way, most manufacturing plants and utilities are considered "small" operations.)

We must prepare for the future success of America now! We must bring formal, structured education and training into the workplace. We must change the course of our public school systems. We must do this to retain both our standard of living and our "Most Productive Nation" status.

The future we are creating for our children and grandchildren is at risk because we are not paying attention to our revenue-producing capital assets and our national infrastructure. Four of the occupations having the "largest numerical growth between 2004 and 2014," according to the U.S. Department of Labor, are Maintenance & Repair Workers, Electricians, Auto Service Technicians and, yes, most defi nitely, Plumbers. Not one of these occupations requires a "college degree" in the traditional sense. So what? The more that these workers are formally prepared, educated and trained, the more successful they and their employer companies will be-and the more secure our Nation and our standard of living will be.

The time for action is now! Let us know what you are doing to meet the challenge.

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Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor
I was overwhelmed and pleased by the feedback regarding my previous column, "The Most Productive Nation," in the January 2007 issue of this magazine…

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