Time to take a chance on this next generation

By Bob Vavra September 25, 2014

The concept of planned obsolescence has been part of the American manufacturing discussion since the 1920s. In the consumer-driven years of the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed every product, every year was “new and improved.” From cars to detergent to electronics, we want the latest and greatest, the most cutting edge technology we can get.

Except when it comes to people.

Unless they can throw a football or dunk a basketball, we don’t take chance on young people, especially in manufacturing. We don’t train the next generation the way we used to, and we don’t pay for potential the way we should. Younger workers today have a decidedly different skill set, and a different life experience. There’s much debate about training techniques and “relating” to a plugged in and tuned out generation. For those of who in my generation who have forgotten, they said the same thing about us.

The difference was that we got a chance to prove out mettle. Employers were more willing to experiment with workers, to look for potential beyond a resume or an education. In valuing a college education, we have forgotten to equally value skills that do not translate into college. We have forced some round pegs into some square holes, and with inconsistent success.

To re-energize our recruitment and training efforts to plug the massive and growing manufacturing skills gap, we cannot count on these young people to find us. We cannot count on the old ways and the old techniques. We’re going to have to create a new set of incentives and a new sense of possibilities.

Above all, we’re going to have to take a chance on this new generation of workers and, as it was for us, build training and education into those goals. We have to show workers a path to success—personal, financial and business. We have to equate work in manufacturing with creating something permanent.

The problem with planned obsolescence is that its primary tenet is that nothing is permanent. While that’s certainly true, nobody goes into a manufacturing plant with the idea that what they make will break someday. Indeed, some of our best manufacturers are realizing that many of their products have survived and remained useful from the prior century well into the current one.

The PLC has become more sophisticated in its design and function, but it’s still programmable logic, and it’s still control. It may be “new and improved” but we haven’t really improved the foundation on which it is built. We’re just using more 0s and 1s. Motors power our lives, even if they are powered with electricity or LNG. Inclines help us defeat gravity.

There are a few things we haven’t really improved on. A screwdriver can be battery-powered today, but you can still turn the manual one and get the screw to stay in place. The same holds true for a hammer—but as the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail.

What we do well today is in adapting and improving our machines so that we have something for every kind of problem—a hammer for every nail, if you will. Why haven’t we been able to do the same for the people who wield these new and amazing tools?

The problems are getting solved in small ways in individual regions. Smart people have not just recognized the problem, but are devising solutions that explain the value of a manufacturing career today and in the future, demonstrate the skills needed to achieve in that career, offer a path to personal, professional and financial reward and provide the training and support in order for the individual and the manufacturer to achieve those rewards.

All that is happening, but it is happening on too small a scale, and much too slowly. We have been at this nexus for too long now. The huge gains we have made as a manufacturing industry, and a manufacturing economy, are threatened by the glacial pace of resolving this fundamental issue. Our only salvation at this time is that most of the rest of the world has the same issue.

It starts, though, with the people. We don’t need new and improved people. We need a new and improved process to recruit, train and retain people. I think we will find that these young people are worth taking a chance on.

And if we don’t, we at least ought to remember that someone was willing to take a chance on us.