SME Speaks: Let’s Maintain Vital Skills
As global competition continues to drive efficiencies within manufacturing companies, employment has shifted dramatically around the world. In the United States, manufacturing employment has decreased by about three million jobs in the last decade.
There has been a lot of debate about what needs to be done to stop, or slow, job losses in the United States and several other nations where increased competition has led to the use of lower-cost producers in many industries. While much of the focus of public concern has been on how to stop manufacturing job losses through adjustments in trade policies, taxes, and other government-led solutions, there has been less focus on maintaining and increasing invaluable skills within the workforce.
The real costs of job shifting should be measured not only by the loss of the jobs themselves, but also by the loss of the skills and knowledge that go along with them. When products are no longer made within a country, the skills necessary to make them will disappear from that nation’s skill set. And resurrecting those skills is often impossible. Lee Iacocca said that the best ideas spring up from the plant floor and assembly lines. If you don’t see things being made, you’re less likely to think up better ways to design, engineer, and manufacture them.
Ironically, as many manufacturers fight for survival by trimming costs, it’s often the training budgets that get hit first. Research and development spending by manufacturers also slows when the jobs needed to fund that spending have gone away. It’s important to recognize that in developed countries, manufacturing supports a good portion of research and development investments; in the US, for instance, manufacturing supports nearly two-thirds of the nation’s R&D. If we put the brakes on R&D investment, we slow the development of invaluable new knowledge and advanced technologies, and we put economic growth and industry leadership at risk. It could become a vicious cycle.
So what can manufacturing companies do?
As an example, let’s consider where the US should focus its skills development. The lowest-skilled jobs, making low-value, mass-produced items, are mainly the ones that have moved off shore. They probably won’t come back, so those of us based in the US need to accept that and stop beating ourselves up about it. To remain competitive, we need to embrace ingenuity and rely on our traditional strengths of technology innovation.
We all agree that competition is a good motivator. It drives value for the customers of our products. With competition also comes the need for even more efficient production of our goods and services. To accomplish that, we need to deploy lean methods and apply advanced technologies and processes such as high-speed machining, micromachining, and hydroforming to improve our core manufacturing operations. Plus, we must continue to learn about and apply the most advanced materials in order to manufacture the lightest, strongest components possible. Finally, it means developing familiarity and expertise in emerging technologies like alternative energy, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. The focus of all of our companies and nations should be on preparing a diverse global workforce with the skills necessary to develop new supply-chain opportunities, new industries, and new capital-generating technologies.
It’s probably no surprise that I feel passionate about this. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), which I’m proud to serve as 2006 president, is the world’s leading resource of information, education, and networking for manufacturing professionals, companies and other organizations. Our goal is to help manufacturing practitioners expand their skills and knowledge, and our information resources and events reach a half-million people and hundreds of organizations every year.
Our Technical Community Network (TCN) includes opportunities for manufacturing practitioners to share best practices in core manufacturing areas and apply lean manufacturing, quality improvement, and supply-chain management techniques and much more. Special technical communities and groups are focused on everything from machining and material removal, to forming and fabricating, to rapid prototyping, composites, emerging technologies, and research. Through the TCN, tens of thousands of manufacturing professionals are continuously increasing their intellectual capital in the most effective way possible—by learning from other real-life practitioners, experts, and researchers.
In addition to helping keep innovation and knowledge-sharing alive through the TCN, SME also provides its members with opportunities to participate in local and national forums where they can talk with government and industry leaders about trade policies, taxes, and related issues. While nobody should be looking to the government to completely stop the global shifting of manufacturing jobs, there are policy solutions to help manage, or mitigate, the losses. Through SME, manufacturing professionals can talk with policy-makers to understand what’s been enacted and what’s being considered, and we can make our voices heard.
By maintaining a competitive edge through our knowledge and expertise and providing a forum for constructive dialogue that can help shape public policy, SME will keep manufacturing viable today. More importantly, we will get beyond merely reacting to global opportunities and threats and begin to lead and shape the future of global manufacturing.
This article was first published in the May 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.