No More Pintos — Overcoming Status Gaps With Procurement/Manufacturing Jobs?

The Wall Street Journal recently published a fantastic piece -- it should be required reading for anyone concerned about the future of education and industry in developed or developing countries -- about the jobs challenge in manufacturing in the US. The article suggests that US manufacturers are "scrambling for talent at home" and that "large and small manufacturers of everything from machine tools to chemicals are scouring for potential hires in high schools, community colleges and the military" to find potential hires. The challenge not only is finding skilled labor with a penchant for production -- it's overcoming the perception in secondary education that a career on the shop floor is somehow not good enough. Of course the irony here is that, as the article points out, a 20-something with a set of manufacturing skills who is working even before many of those are even in their senior year of college can make $55,000 per year.

As I read the story, what struck me most were the parallels with procurement. Just as manufacturing is seen in many middle-class American families as a career they don't necessarily want their children to pursue, so to is procurement still conceived inside many top universities and b-school programs as a corporate step-child, despite the success that recent grads are having and the income potential the career is finally generating for strong performers. Moreover, just as manufacturing jobs are going unfilled, we also need a more skilled and analytically-oriented workforce in procurement -- and it looks like for those close to the profession that except for CPO roles, there's a dearth of talent available to fill needed positions.

Granted, some manufacturers are going to extremes to find talent -- especially those with a math/science orientation -- by poaching from one another, retraining people who used to have white-collar jobs, and in some cases even hiring "former prisoners who learned machinist skills behind bars." But one could argue that procurement recruiting tactics, especially for those with commodity management skills in today's markets, aren't much different. Still, what's perhaps most insightful about the demand side of the labor equation in manufacturing and procurement is that as salaries climb and important positions go unfilled, so too will the status levels of such jobs in broader society as well. It may take a generation or more, but it will be such a great sign for the future of this country -- not to mention other nations that adopt a similar perspective -- when machinists and supply managers are afforded similar or greater respect than lawyers and bankers.

Here's a thought -- rather than finding 20 minutes to read to our kids at night perhaps we should dust off the old CNC machine in our garage -- or buy a used one -- and teach our kids how to work with not just intellectual material, but the real thing. Clearly, we're failing at the first, as even developing countries outpace the growth of US math and science skills in both primary and secondary education.

Jason Busch

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