To Revive American Manufacturing, Train Workers

Originally published: 08.01.12 by Terry Tanker


There’s a lot of urgent debate these days about American manufacturing. The relocation of U.S. manufacturing jobs to overseas companies has become a bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans in the presidential election. But there is a broad, bipartisan consensus that we have let our manufacturing sector wither to our economy’s detriment, and we’ve got to do whatever we can to create more production jobs and revitalize an industry force that once made the U.S. an economic powerhouse.

Critical to this discussion, and the hopes contained within it, is the question of manufacturing job skills and the gap between job-skills requirements and worker education. America is never going to bring back all of the mass-assembly, stamp-press types of jobs that many associate with traditional manufacturing. Those are gone for good, either automated out of existence or handled in low-wage factories in faraway places with less regulation and more government subsidies. The successful U.S. manufacturing plants that continue to pay good wages and benefits are workplaces where advanced job skills are a must. So to expand manufacturing nationally, we need more people with those advanced job skills.

Why should HVACR contractors care? First and foremost, manufacturing is a huge part of our national economy: 22% of GDP in fact. A decline in manufacturing brings business down for everyone else. Secondly, contractors rely on equipment producers to make high-quality products that meet customer needs and wants at a price that won’t make it impossible for the contractor to meet profit goals. If HVACR equipment manufacturers can’t find enough of the right workers, they can’t fulfill this important role.

The problem is that there are not enough highly skilled workers to fill all of the open positions that manufacturers have. It’s estimated that there is a 50% vacancy (amounting to some 600,000 jobs) for jobs requiring advanced production skills. So where does the shortfall come from, and what can we do about it?

Admittedly, the manufacturing community has not done a good job presenting itself as a good career path recently. We’ve also developed a distorted and negative mindset about careers that do not include college as the gateway to white-collar work, wherein manufacturing jobs have been depicted as dead-end blue-collar jobs, absent any notion of a career focus. Vocational schools, where practical job skills are the educational focus, have been shortchanged and denigrated.

All of this has to change. Not every high school graduate needs to go to college to have a successful career, and it would be healthier for our economy and education system if there were more emphasis and resources placed on the vocational side of the equation, as in a number of Western European countries. In Germany, for example, where a manufacturing career is prized, most students graduate from vocational “colleges” where specific job skills relating to the fundamental manufacture of high- quality products is the heart and soul of the curriculum. German manufacturers support this approach.

For their part, American manufacturers have to stand up and take on the task of training their own workers. If the education system can’t meet the need for skilled employees, and clearly it hasn’t, then manufacturers need to do it.

Contractors can relate to this because the shortage of skilled service technicians has been an issue for decades. However, I believe that the HVACR industry as a whole would rate significantly above manufacturers in the training area, and there are many examples. Recently, I attended the opening of Taco Manufacturing’s 24,000-square-foot Innovation & Learning Center. The company originally launched the center in 1992, and it’s been a continual focus at Taco to train their workforce, continually upgrade their skills, and expand their job expertise.

The often-asked question is what is the return on investment for spending dollars on employee training, and how can it be measured? Taco measures at least a portion of this ROI in employee turnover, which is less than 1%. Often companies are hesitant to invest in training for fear workers will leave and take the knowledge and experience elsewhere. However, according to John Hazen White Jr., Taco’s CEO, his experience demonstrates just the opposite: “If you train your workers, they will stay with you because training promotes job growth and job security.”

Being a successful American manufacturer, contractor, or business owner in today’s economy requires an active investment in one’s workers, precisely because they are not replaceable cogs performing mindless, repetitive tasks; but rather skilled, versatile individuals. That reality makes training the key to retention and also recruitment.

To successfully engage in training requires management’s commitment and funding. Focusing solely on the bottom line is what drove manufacturing jobs overseas in the first place, thereby leaving us in our present circumstances. Now we need to return jobs to our shores and revitalize our manufacturing base. But we will not be able to do that without training our workers.


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