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Developing manufacturing workforce

As I See It

I am surprised at the shortage of Mississippi-born tool-and-die makers in our state. This job commands high wages and is always in demand. However, few young people learn the trade. In fact, not enough bright young people are training for manufacturing jobs of any type.

It is fairly common knowledge that Mississippi, and the U.S., in general, is losing low-skill jobs to other countries with lower pay scales. It’s easy to get confused into thinking that the loss of low-skill jobs means there is no future in manufacturing in America.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

After the low-skill manufacturing jobs are gone, nothing will be left but the high-skill jobs. These jobs are stable, high-paying and in demand. When compared with service sector jobs, the manufacturing jobs win hands down.

Regardless of what part of America you’re in, the demand for skilled manufacturing workers is consistently high. Nonetheless, it is hard to convince students that they should choose a career as a precision machinist, tool-and-die maker or designer, or other skilled position.

Not even the lure of salaries ranging from $40,000 to $70,000 at the end of the typical four-year apprenticeship of paid work and schooling seems to be persuasive.

Why aren’t young people going into the manufacturing field? The reasons are numerous and complex. In general, the public believes that a manufacturing career is less desirable than going to college. The perception of factory work as being dirty, dangerous, low paying and low-status is firmly ingrained in our culture.

“When you try and convince parents that these (manufacturing jobs) are good careers for their children, they tell you ‘It’s great, it’s wonderful — but not for my kid,’” says Lawrence A. Wohl, professor of economics and management at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

“Those occupations don’t have a lot of status in this status-conscious world,” he adds.

The data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the average weekly pay earned by a college graduate in the U.S. is $827 per week compared with $490 per week for a high school graduate.

This would certainly seem to support the parents in pushing their kids toward a college education. However, data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 70% of students go to college, but six years later only half of that 70% have earned degrees and just one-third of those have jobs related to that degree. It is likely that many of those students who began college and dropped out would have been better off to have apprenticed for a skilled manufacturing job. Instead of a college drop out, they would now be a sought after technical craftsman.

All of us parents want to think that our kids are too special to work in manufacturing. Rather than being supportive of their pursuing a technical career, we chastise and belittle them into thinking that without a college degree they’ll be failures. No one can fault parents for doing what they think best for their children, but changing our definition of success might be helpful. When we say we want our kids to go to college, aren’t we really saying we want them to get the education they need to get a family-sustaining job?

If we change our definition of success to be a meaningful, financially rewarding career rather than just a college degree, we open the door to more opportunities. Many kids should be pushed toward college, particularly those who show aptitude for academic subjects or professional careers. Many others need to pursue technical training that will put them in position for an excellent career.

Parents have the opportunity for significant influence on their children. So, what will it be? High-skilled technical training or a four-year college degree? It’s worth the time and effort to explore both options.

Thought for the Moment — The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it but what they become by it.

— writer John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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