Up Front:The Recovery and the Aftermath
By Brian J. Hogan
We are living through the second recession in a decade. Manufacturing professionals remember the last one, which ended about seven years ago, with shudders. But the present recession is worse. I've heard a Federal Reserve economist refer to this downturn as The Great Recession, and he presented data that justified the name.
If there is a silver lining to the flogging manufacturing has absorbed since the end of the 1990s, it is to be found in the updating of equipment and techniques one sees throughout manufacturing. Managers in this field have generally appreciated that the way forward requires the application of technology and lean management to improve productivity. When the economy finally turns and begins to exhibit real growth, toughened, lean, technologically up-to-date shops and companies will be well-positioned to succeed.
Short-term, the turning will be a great relief. But there are other steps that must be taken to sustain the manufacturing skills, technology, and acceptance that can enable manufacturing to survive and prosper in the long term.
First of all, in our magazine's "Focus on the Workforce" department, we document programs taking place all over the US that are intended to develop the future industrial workforce. Manufacturing probably needs to find a way to pull these scattered efforts together, perhaps even to create some version of the famous apprenticeship programs that prepare young people in Europe for manufacturing careers. Certainly there needs to be a great effort to ensure that certification programs—such as those provided by SME—are accepted throughout manufacturing as portable evidence of professional qualifications.
Second, perhaps the most difficult task manufacturing faces is to change perceptions of manufacturing held by our political class and media. In an industrial country like the US, figuratively speaking, most persons live their lives in watertight chambers. People who work in technical fields typically interact mostly with others of similar backgrounds—technicians, technical managers, engineers, and so forth. Professional politicians and media people live in the same way. I have met newspaper reporters who have never been in a plant. Regular, routine visits by reporters to plants, contract manufacturers, and job shops simply do not occur.
If that could change, so would many false perceptions. It is absolutely true that what happens in a modern manufacturing facility or machine shop has nothing to do with the images a typical politician or media person carries around in his or her mind.
Employees working at CAD/CAM screens, machining halls with clean floors, well-lit assembly areas with in-line QC—that's not what outsiders expect to see. If you can get them to regularly visit plants like your own, changes in perception will follow, because reality has immense persuasive power, even to a second-rate mind.
This article was first published in the May 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.