Recruiting manufacturing's new 'Dream Team'

We’re not only competing against the rest of the world for manufacturing, we’re also competing against other U.S. companies for talent. And some people just don’t want to play on our team any more.

09/23/2011


Bob Vavra, Content Manager, Plant Engineering, CFE MediaThe parallels between American basketball and American manufacturing are astounding. There was a time, in my lifetime, when no one EVER beat the U.S. at basketball on the international stage. We would throw our college kids against seasoned adults from other countries in the Olympics and every time we would win in a walk because our talent was just so much better.

Then the world started to get better. They practiced hard, and made basketball a priority with some of their better athletes. They held American basketball as the standard and strived to meet that standard.

Slowly, over time, the gap started to close. The first big wake-up call was the 1972 Olympics when the U.S.S.R. beat the U.S. for the gold medal. The game ended with a series of disputed of calls at the end of the game that gave the U.S.S.R. three chances to win the game. Only the most rational basketball analysts thought to ask after the game how the Russians were that close at the end of the game to begin with.

By 1988, the U.S. has lost its inherent global edge in basketball. The rest of the world had caught up. The U.S. then sought and won the right to send professional players to compete in the Olympics, and 1992 produced the “Dream Team” with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. The U.S. won games in the early rounds by lopsided scores, and beat Croatia by 32 points to capture the gold. We put our best players on the floor, and we won.

In the next few Olympics, the new challenge of NBA players in the Olympics seemed to again spur international teams to renew their efforts to compete with the U.S. And by then, international players were common in the professional ranks. We didn’t always put our best players on the floor, and when we did, it was not always enough. The world had caught up.

The U.S. invented manufacturing in much the same way it invented basketball. It created a world standard for manufacturing that the rest of the world observed with awe, then envy, and finally resolve. It took years of persistent work, but the world had a clear focus of what it would take to be as good as the U.S. in manufacturing.

Not better than, of course. Like basketball, manufacturing in the U.S. is at an elite level. But also like basketball, all you need to compete are the basic tools. Talent is born, but sometimes the biggest challenge is to find raw talent and develop it. There are certain skills that need to be mined and encouraged. By casting a wider net, it is more likely you will find that talent.

If the only place you look for basketball talent is on the playground, you are not looking in as many places as you could. If you are only looking in engineering schools for your manufacturing talent, you’re not looking in as many places as you could.

Perhaps the most important point is that you have to get out and look. The Skills Gap in manufacturing is real, as this month’s cover story once again points out. There is a torrent of data that tells us the same thing over and over again – we will lose a lot of talent in the next five years, and we have nowhere near the talent coming through the pipeline to replace it.  

What has changed is that we can not assume the talent is just going to show up. We are not only competing against the rest of the world for manufacturing, we are also competing against other U.S. companies for talent. And some people just do not want to play on our team any more.

In big cities and small towns, manufacturers are seizing the initiative to get the talent they will need to compete in the future, because that is just what the rest of the world is now doing. They did not wait for a federal grant or a state mandate. They saw the problem and worked to fix it. In that way, they are staying ahead of the game.

That is the challenge. We are in a global competitive manufacturing environment. We need our best players in the game. We need to recruit world-class players – both those we can grow here and those we can bring in from the rest of the world. We need to encourage those players who need new skills to compete in the new world of manufacturing to go get those skills.

What we can not do is wait, because no one in the rest of the world is waiting for us. In fact, we are about five years behind where we should be at this point. We have not created widespread community college programs to help local manufacturers fill specific needs. We made business tax breaks, and not innovation, the cornerstone of our federal debate. We cannot see manufacturing as it is, and can not understand why it is not as it was one generation or even one decade ago.

We simply can not go back. There are those on the fringes of this debate who want things the way they were. That is not happening. The only way to win is to find our new Dream Team, lace up our shoes and get into the game. History tells us we have a pretty good chance of winning.



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