Dreaming of the future

Ray Connor is the future of manufacturing. Eight years ago, his final interview to be among the first employees at Kansas City's new Harley Davidson assembly plant coincided with his honeymoon. He called back to tell Harley he'd postpone the honeymoon. Eight years and three children later, Connor, 30, is a quality auditor for Harley, a poised professional with an encyclopedic knowledge of the p...

By Bob Vavra, Chief Editor, Plant Engineering July 1, 2005

Ray Connor is the future of manufacturing. Eight years ago, his final interview to be among the first employees at Kansas City’s new Harley Davidson assembly plant coincided with his honeymoon. He called back to tell Harley he’d postpone the honeymoon.

Eight years and three children later, Connor, 30, is a quality auditor for Harley, a poised professional with an encyclopedic knowledge of the plant’s operation and an obvious pride in his job. Oh yes, and with a Hog out front.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do in high school. I don’t think this is what I thought I would do, but even in high school, I would have been more than happy to do this,” he said. “I look at everything that goes into manufacturing. People think we get out here and put a lot of parts together. It’s more than putting parts on a bike. That’s just a portion of it.”

Chris Cochran is the future of manufacturing.

He lives in Union City, MO. The 60 miles he drives from his home each weekday to Kansas City’s Business and Technical College seems like a long way to come to learn about his chosen trade, but Connor, 21, figures it’s a short distance to travel for his future.

“I wanted to further my education, so this was the closest place I could find. I wanted to get a hands-on experience, and it’s helped out quite a bit,” said Cochran of his experience at BTC. “I want to get out as quick as I can and get to work. You can’t really get a good job now without a college degree. I’ll have a better idea when I start to go about things. There are still things I need to learn.”

Dave Barner is the future of manufacturing.

A launch engineer for Intier Automotive’s Excelsior Springs, MO Seating System facility, Barner has a degree in industrial engineering from Central Missouri State and an MBA is in his future. At 26, Barner sees his work hit the road each year on 272,000 Ford and Mazda SUVs. His plant does the seat assembly for the vehicles.

“People think manufacturing is a dirty job. Well, if you don’t enjoy getting your hands dirty, then you won’t enjoy it,” said Barner. “I’ve enjoyed it from the get-go. We’ve got a big Erector set out there.”

A new perception

The future of U.S. manufacturing has been in debate in the New Millennium, but for those committed to its revival and growth, it will take workers like these to forge a new perception of manufacturing as a diverse, dynamic and secure future. It’s a tough sell in an environment of multiple career choices, let alone in an environment that has lost jobs.

There is a new story being told, and the birth for that new story is in Kansas City, MO. It is where the National Association of Manufacturers has launched a pilot program to refine the story about the new manufacturing reality in America — one where young workers can find secure, well-paying and challenging jobs that capitalize on their interests in technology and their talent in a new manufacturing world.

The Dream It. Do It. campaign sprung from the economic and demographic realities facing American manufacturing. A 2003 white paper commissioned by NAM and produced by Deloitte and Touche highlights a looming job shortage in manufacturing in all areas — from engineer to IT technician, from entry level production engineer to accounting and sales.

“The U.S. economy, as a whole, will face a growing shortage of skilled workers in the coming decade,” notes the report, called Keeping America Competitive. “The shortage of jobs requiring at least some degree of post-secondary education or training will exceed 10 million in the second decade of this millennium.”

The report also notes a persistent perception of what a job in manufacturing details — dark, hot assembly plants, repetitive motion, low wages and a life spent in a rigid, uncreative environment.

While the report paints a grim picture of the present, it paints a more hopeful one for the future. With a Baby Boomer workforce nearing retirement age, replacement workers are in demand to keep U.S. manufacturing moving forward. The growth in the manufacturing sector is expected to be strong in the coming decade. The need for a diverse workforce means that jobs from the plant floor to the corner office will be needed — and that there is a path to get from one to the other.

“Manufacturing stands at a crossroads,” the report concludes. “Will U.S. manufacturers join together to launch a program that engages young people’s imaginations and helps them see the enormous potential that this sector offers. Will they successfully advocate for ways to realign this country’s education and training programs to better meet the needs of both individuals and manufacturers?”

Goin’ to Kansas City

Smack in the middle of the heartland, Kansas City seems both an odd and inspired choice for the launch of Dream It. Do It. Well outside the Rust Belt, it is not the first place most consider as a manufacturing hub. It is well away from America’s steel mills and auto plants, where much of the manufacturing job loss has been acutely felt — not to mention half a country away from elected officials.

Yet that may be one of Kansas City’s great strengths as this experiment unfolds. Out of the glare, Dream It. Do It. can experiment with new ideas and build new alliances. It is free from the bureaucracy of a federally-funded effort. It is a grass roots campaign, planted in what is truly one of the nation’s richest manufacturing regions.

Besides the Harley-Davidson facility, Kansas City is home to assembly plants for Ford and General Motors, both of which are working on hybrid vehicles. The region has 1.8 million residents, a strong community college system and an affordable housing market. Kansas City supports growth, and it is an area with room to grow. The move to bring the Dream It. Do It. campaign to Kansas City is driven because the existing manufacturing base looks to grow, and they look to do it with home-grown talent. It is talent that has looked to other regions or other career paths.

It has attracted the support of business leaders such as Bill Downey, president and CEO of Kansas City Power & Light. “My skilled craftsman, electricians — people who make things — are nearing retirement age,” said Downey. “I’m on the NAM Board, and we’ve talked long and hard about this issue. I’ve also just finished two years as co-chair of the Kansas City Area Development Council, and part of our overall effort is to make the community an attractive place to locate.”

Downey said his company is not unique. Skilled labor is a precious commodity, and a failure to begin to develop that labor base now puts continued productivity at risk when the current workforce begins to retire. “When you look at manufacturing overall, yes, there truly have been some hits,” he said, “but the percentage of GDP from manufacturing has remained fairly constant.”

With the support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor, the initial effort to launch Dream It. Do It. in Kansas City began in February. Much of the initial work is focused on benchmarking the resources and the needs in the Kansas City area, reaching out to area businesses and educators to find where the gaps in knowledge may be, and to begin to organize an action plan to change the perception of manufacturing in the region.

The goal of Dream It. Do It. is multifaceted:

  • To attract and retain young workers looking to build a career in all facets of manufacturing, from assembly and skilled labor to marketing and sales

  • To raise manufacturing’s reputation as a sound, exciting career choice for high school students looking to decide on a career

  • To create a link between manufacturing and education that helps manufacturers identify training needs and educational requirements and schools ready to adapt curriculum to help meet those needs

  • To convince companies interested in building manufacturing facilities that there is a ready supply of skilled labor available to meet all the hiring needs of new businesses.

    • It is a matter of economic development on both a personal and regional basis. Dream It. Do It. seeks to explain the benefits (salaries, career and educational advancement, personal satisfaction and a secure future) of a career in manufacturing. To do that, program leaders concede, they must change the way manufacturing is viewed by students, parents and even educators, and they must create a cohesive effort that explains the career benefits in tangible ways.

      A manufacturers council meets regularly, as does the region’s various economic development groups. While each constituency has parochial interests, they also work together to create the right mix of training, support and outreach. That’s been an important change in thinking, Downey noted.

      “As we’ve pulled together, there were a lot of interests competing with each other,” he said. “But people in those meetings have told me we’ve provided a forum that’s been needed, and we’re all benefiting from it.”

      One of the real keys is to show manufacturing as more than assembly and process management, but as a diverse, technologically advanced career choice.

      Making the case

      Karl Eberle has been one of the earliest boosters for Dream It. Do It. in Kansas City. His motivation is as altruistic as one can be when you’re vice-president and general manager for Harley Davidson’s Kansas City plant. “Selfishly, we’re always looking for good employees,” he said. “If I can get local, experienced talent, they’re going to stay.

      “Our name helps a lot. Our image gets us more candidates. But we still search a long time,” Eberle said. “We had 10-plus salaried openings in the last 18 months. Now we’ve gotten that down to five, but it’s definitely been difficult.”

      Part of that difficulty, Eberle concedes, is in the perception his industry has among young people and among the educators who advise them on career choices. “I’m probably more vocal about it than most people. There are a lot of bad mental models that exist.”

      “Manufacturing has changed a lot faster than we’ve been able to sell the change,” he said. “When we talk about what our fathers and grandfathers did, it’s like talking about the Ice Age.

      “The other thing that’s different is that the opportunities exist. That’s not an issue any more. There are whole platters of opportunities out there. That really wasn’t true in the past,” he added.

      While the news media talks of layoffs and the popular media continues to portray manufacturing in a less-flattering light (think Laverne & Shirley), Eberle notes the fault also lies within the manufacturing sector itself.

      “We need to start younger, and we’ve got to go to them. They’re not going to come to us,” he said. “Manufacturing has got to reach out now and demonstrate things are different. We’ve got to take some of our own ambassadors and tell people what we do.”

      Changing the employee model

      Telling that story means listing the new way manufacturing is done — better ergonomics, more diverse work rules, a stronger benefits package and a chance to grow a career. The manufacturing sector is also attracting a diverse workforce, which management leaders are pleased to see.

      “The more diversified the employee, the better leaders they make,” Eberle said. “The opportunities that exist today with things like tuition reimbursement, didn’t exist before. We talk a lot about career paths and their development as leaders.”

      “Clearly, we’ve got a group of workers who have been with us 25, 35 years, and at that time, it was largely an all-white workforce,” Downey said. “We want to recruit people with talent, but we also want to responsibly represent the community.”

      Even with those goals, the challenge is to find the right message for their target audience. “The key is getting the young people’s interest,” said Downey. “We need to talk to the educational institutions and find out what they can supply. We want a strong relationship with them.”

      That’s a message Connor would have appreciated. “If I had it to do over again, seeing the programs Harley has, I would have worked harder at math to get my engineering degree,” said Connor. “I didn’t have the dream of being an engineer. I’m just a few credits short of my bachelor’s degree in business. I plan to retire at Harley, if fate lets that be.”

      Beyond recruitment and training, Eberle believes there needs to be a realization that new employees entering the workforce will bring with them new needs and new expectations of their relationship with the company.

      “Our average employee is younger. We have a lot of single parents, and that’s created certain issues,” Eberle said of his staff at Harley. “I think those things will be resolved as they get more seniority. Now, I do a lot of walking and talking. The aggressive employees always do well. They show an interest. We see the employees who step up and volunteer.

      “Once an employee gets the appetite, it fuels itself,” Eberle added. “Potential employees need to understand what is available. These future employees need to see that.”

      Barner saw it early in his career. “I think I was more prepared than most, and that helped my progression,” he said. “I’m not real old, but I knew a lot of stuff. Every company is different.”

      More Info:

      For more information, go to the Dream It. Do It. Website at www.dreamit-doit.com . The Alliance for Innovation in Manufacturing — Kansas City Website is www.thinkKC.com .

      Academics, business and research cooperate at Georgia Tech

      Academic institutions have taken up the cause of developing the next generation of engineering. One such example is the Georgia Tech Research Institute, which has combined academic research with real-world applications to help forge the engineers of tomorrow. Stephen E. Cross, Ph.D, director of GTRI and vice president at Georgia Tech, takes Plant Engineering readers on a tour of the process at GTRI:

      When Daniel Hegeman graduates from Georgia Tech, he’ll have much more than a top-ranked undergraduate education. Now a junior studying aerospace engineering, Daniel has been working at the Georgia Tech Research Institute — Georgia Tech’s applied research arm — in between classes and his regular schoolwork.

      At GTRI, he’s helped develop and test aerodynamic improvements that could boost fuel efficiency in heavy trucks and other vehicles by as much as 11 to 12 percent at highway speeds. As part of the project, he’s operated GTRI’s subsonic wind tunnel, worked as part of multi-person research team with top experts in aerodynamics — and even helped author journal articles on the research.

      While those duties originally seemed intimidating, Daniel found he was both welcomed and involved by the full-time GTRI researchers with whom he worked.

      “Amid all the pressures, including tight deadlines and tighter budgets, the researchers were interested in helping me succeed,” he says. “I was included in important meetings, respected like a peer, and applying what I learned in class. They really made me feel like I mattered.”

      And he knows the work he’s doing is important. “Someday, I may actually be driving down the road and see a big rig outfitted with our flow control system and think ‘I helped make that happen’,” he adds.

      Mixing classroom and work

      Georgia Tech’s Cooperative Education Program is a five-year academic program in which students alternate semesters of full-time study and semesters of full-time work. Georgia Tech’s program is currently the largest totally optional program in the United States, with about 3,000 students participating.

      As the largest employer of Georgia Tech co-op students, GTRI employs more than a hundred bright graduate and undergraduate students to work side-by-side with researchers in any given year. The students are immediately put to work on real projects, for real sponsors, who need real-world solutions. Many of the highly skilled researchers now employed are homegrown. Each year 15% to 25% of newly hired full-time researchers are former co-op students.

      Operating as an integral part of Georgia Tech, a top ranked research university, GTRI conducts world-class applied research and delivers leading edge, real-world solutions and training to industry and government organizations in the state, the nation, and the world.

      Nearly 1,300 employees strong, GTRI conducts almost $140 million in research and development each year for sponsors in industry, government, and academic institutions across the state, nation, and world. GTRI’s focus has moved far beyond simple engineering research and experimentation into a broad spectrum combining engineering, science, economics, and technical exploration. Today GTRI conducts groundbreaking research, educational programs and economic development initiatives that advance the global competitiveness and security for both U.S. and international sponsors.

      Another good example of GTRI’s impact on students is Kirsten Lundstrom, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. Her GTRI experience began with work in both civil and chemical engineering. Shortly after being hired, Kirsten found herself studying sustainability, creating buildings that are more people and environment friendly. From there she began working with GTRI teams conducting training in asbestos abatement and studying the lead content in paint used in childcare facilities.

      Today Kristen is helping develop stronger and more lightweight armor for an experimental prototype military vehicle known as the ULTRA Armored Patrol, which will have high-output diesel power, revolutionary armor, and a fully modern chassis. She says her work has forced her to look beyond simple engineering and scientific theory.

      “I get my hands dirty”

      “In class you work with a lot of individual systems, but in the real world it’s all about how those smaller systems work together to form larger more complex and advanced systems,” she says. “I now see the big picture — instead of building one part of a vehicle I’m thinking about how we can build the whole thing. I truly feel like I have a lot more to offer an employer after this experience.”

      “I get my hands dirty and it’s great,” she adds.

      Graduation is always bittersweet for GTRI’s co-op students and Erik Kline is no exception. Erik worked in our Food Processing Technology Division but is now pursuing his PhD in Computer Science at UCLA. He says his work at GTRI has already been helpful in his studies.

      “Some of the analysis techniques are really high level,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a piece of bread or an automobile, the techniques carry over.

      The business side of research, the strict deadlines, the process of trial and error, and the satisfaction you get from success — are things you just don’t learn in a classroom alone.”

      A changing nation and changing world have resulted in greater diversification of GTRI’s research programs, which benefit those who have projects that span across multiple disciplines. Researchers are also frequent participants in consortia that perform research for small and large business internationally. It is common for the institute to work with more than 200 industrial customers at any one time.

      Community-focused research

      The integral role of GTRI in the university community also includes collaborative research with academic faculty and joint service efforts. Many of GTRI’s 600 researchers hold appointments as adjunct faculty members, serve on thesis advisory committees, and teach both academic and continuing education courses. In fact, 73 percent of the researchers hold advanced degrees

      Daniel, Kirsten, and Erik are proud examples of GTRI’s commitment to the future of research and innovation. While they have spent time working on some very exciting programs, there’s much more taking place in the laboratories.

      From the development of safety systems for nuclear power plants and tornado early warning systems to remote sensing for inventory and industrial robotics, GTRI is in the forefront of innovation, applying engineering principles to solve real-world problems.

      GTRI recently opened a new 36,000-square-foot Food Processing Technology Building, which marked the 30th anniversary of GTRI’s work in developing food technology solutions. The building was constructed through a partnership between the state of Georgia, higher education, and 17 private companies — all with facilities in Georgia — that manufacture food products or offer equipment and technological support to the industry.

      To help electronics manufacturers become more efficient, researchers are part of a team developing a family of international standards for interoperability. This will help the industry deal with the challenges posed when using equipment and software from a variety of vendors. It will reduce frequent changes in assembly lines, saving both time and money.

      Dream It. Do It. goal: ‘aligning hopes and dreams’

      The effort in Kansas City to launch the Dream It. Do It. campaign has been entrusted to Paul Scianna, executive director of the Alliance for Innovation in Manufacturing — Kansas City, and Phyllis Eisen, vice-president of The Manufacturing Institute, which is part of the National Association of Manufacturers.

      PLANT ENGINEERING spoke exclusively with both to find out how Dream It. Do It. is being received, and why the effort is so important to the short- and long-term future of manufacturing:

      When you talk with educators and young people, what’s their initial impression of Dream It. Do It.?

      Scianna: It depends on the audience. Educators who are aware of the array of manufacturing-related careers require little or no information to convince them about the importance of our campaign. For those who are less familiar with careers in today’s manufacturing, it doesn’t take long for them to realize the value of our campaign. And when I mention that the average wage in manufacturing is about $62,000 a year — or 22% higher than other sectors — I’ll inevitably hear the question, “Where can I get an application?” This is usually followed by some good-natured laughter.

      Many secondary educators indicate they are under a lot of pressure to “send” their students to four-year colleges or universities — regardless of the student’s interest or level of preparation. These educators welcome programs that support their efforts to offer meaningful education and training to all of their students. It’s important to note that while most entry-level positions in manufacturing require some sort of post-secondary education or training (i.e., an advanced certificate, associates degree, etc.) not all require a four-year degree.

      Eisen: When we talk with both educators and young people, their initial response to manufacturing and its careers is old and stereotyped or just ignorant (no knowledge at all) They have been influenced by plant closings and local news as well. When we talk about the Dream It. Do It. campaign — they light up and almost instantly connect with the aspiration and personal challenge of the campaign. Educators want new opportunities for their students and new tools to help them connect with the real work of the future. Students want to connect their sense of self and hopes and dreams of contributing to society (a very important goal of this generation) and are totally open once they get into the Website or connect with a real person.

      How about with manufacturers? What’s their reaction been at the grass-roots level?

      Eisen: I think local manufacturers are excited about being portrayed differently and looking cool. I also think they are cautious because they want to make sure this is not just another flavor of the month. But having NAM behind this is key for them. We are their trusted association and they feel extraordinarily positive we understand they are sick and tired of being portrayed in old, negative stereotypes and eager to show their facility is not their grand-dad’s factory. Slowly but surely they are gathering voice in a broad range of communities to say, “We will join this campaign and fight for our future.” So for our members, the national attention and the local opportunity to become involved is the secret of the sauce. It just takes time to connect them with the available resources.

      Scianna: Overall, the reaction has been very positive. Yet one of the challenges we face is that most small- and medium-sized manufacturers wear many hats, so it’s difficult to pull them away from their day-to-day responsibilities to address an issue — even one that most affects them. We have a number of manufacturers who are becoming more involved in our efforts, and we’re continually seeking their input on ways to engage them in a manner that takes the least amount of time and offers the greatest value.

      In addition, many manufacturers are using our efforts as a rally cry and a means of encouraging one another to find common ground and embrace the challenges they collectively face. To a certain extent, they have adopted the words of our founding fathers who said, “We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

      How will you measure the success of this program?

      Eisen: The success of this program will be measured in a variety of ways – each reflected by the region that designs the Dream It. Do It. campaign. In Kansas City and other pilots we will do pre-and post benchmarking of attitudes (over a 16-month period). We have also developed a Skills Gap Analysis tool that shows what gaps need to be filled by the supply side (education) to fill business and job demands. We will review in each pilot if those are underway. We continuously track website traffic and focus on continuous improvement and feedback from the community. We will track involvement in each region of the coalitions or alliances that develop (a key part of the model) and see who has joined from varying parts of the community (civic, political, economic development, educational and business and community based organization) and what they have agreed to do to make the Dream It. Do It. campaign successful and an integral part of the community.

      Scianna: Manufacturing has long been the economic backbone of our nation and the source of growth and prosperity for our communities. And while we cannot guarantee the success of our efforts, we can be fairly certain of the results if we do nothing at all.

      While there are many benchmarks we can use, our success ultimately will be determined by our ability to retain and grow our existing manufacturing base and to attract new manufacturing operations to our area.

      But in order to accomplish this goal, we must be successful in our efforts to: 1) update the perception of manufacturing among young adults, parents, teachers and counselors; 2) align our education and training programs with the demands of area industry; and 3) ensure that our region offers a competitive environment for manufacturers.

      The goal of Dream It. Do It. is to roll out similar programs all over the country, but time is of the essence. What can manufacturers do now to develop a similar program in their own communities?

      Scianna: My father-in-law is fond of the saying, “When all is said and done, often times, more is said than done.” Manufacturers across America are not only talking about the issues they face, they’re taking action to address them.

      While other communities may not currently have a Dream It. Do It. campaign or an organization such as AIM-KC, local manufacturers can take the leadership in ensuring that their communities have the infrastructure in place to meet the workforce challenges of the 21st century.

      The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 60% of all new jobs in the 21st century will require skills that are possessed by only 20% of the current workforce. So if you think about it, most all of us will require some sort of “re-tooling” in order to remain viable. If we are willing to embrace change, you’ll be successful. If not, we — and our community — will be left behind.

      Eisen: Yes, time is of the essence but we are determined to test this community based model and make sure it is flexible and doable and also can be integrated with local ideas for promoting the skills and careers necessary to create a robust manufacturing sector. Local communities are calling us every day with ideas of their own and we are working one-on-one to help them integrate some of the work of Dream It. Do It. But our model is not an inexpensive one or an easy one. It takes an entire community pulling together to turn the tide on focusing young people to the high skilled and exciting jobs in manufacturing.

      This is not just the creation of yet one more video or some additional curricula for the schools. We have to break out of what we have done in the past to achieve new results in demanding times. We want Dream It. Do It. all around the country as a brand that manufacturing careers of the 21st century align directly with the hopes and dreams of our future workforce. Otherwise, I don’t think we have a chance to have the best, brightest and future change agents in our most productive sector — at least for now.