Build Something!

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Why not build something?  Something that will last.

Out there in the streets of corporate America, life seems to be getting tougher with each passing day. The pressure to achieve short-term results has never been greater. In fact, this pressure seems to be increasing exponentially.  Perhaps it is an idealistic delusion that tells us that by now we should be much further beyond where we are in this regard.  The good news is that each and every day places us at a series of crossroads. This is precisely where we can make choices about how we go about doing what it is we do.

While top-level objectives, especially earnings targets in public companies, are best and more safely viewed as fixed, there is probably greater latitude to build something that will last than first seems apparent.  There often exists some amount of room for artistic freedom, individual conscience, and long-term thinking in how we choose to go about meeting the top-level requirements.

Build products

Not everyone gets to play in the product sandbox every day when they go to work. However, those who do are in a great position to literally build something that will last rather than just build something that gets out the door quickly, works for a while, and then falls apart or stops working altogether. Engineers, brand managers, and ultimately production organizations collectively decide how long a tangible product that we as consumers buy will last.

Even with cost and go-to-market constraints, the decisions these folks make determine how long your car, refrigerator, or cell phone will last. Not that everything can or should last forever.  But building something that will last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build experiences

On the service side, sales representation, delivery, technical support, and customer service go together to define what is commonly called “customer experience”.  Depending on the business, billing, credit, and collections are financial areas that enter into the experiential realm.  And these days, who can deny the role of web sites and other IT services in building experience?

Building customer experience is not a slam dunk. It’s hard work and involves many pieces and parts of an organization. Applied to tangible product or services, for-profit and non-profit, building customer experiences that will last leads to market differentiation which ultimately builds brand equity. Building customer experiences that last is ultimately good for a company and all its stakeholders.

Build processes

Processes are the support systems that hold together entire product and service experience structures. Arguably the first two “builds” above are not likely to happen without first building processes that last. This is an areas where organizations who choose the easy short-term answers get burnt in the long-run. It is easy to build a process “house of cards”. It takes less time and costs less. Is it any great wonder that they fall apart just as easily?

Processes involve many people and departments throughout an organization.  As a result, they are very vulnerable to short-term cost pressures. Downsizing, reorganization, and ill-advised tinkering works against strength in process. When processes fail, entire companies, or at least businesses and individuals within them, fail because customers, products, and services are impacted. Building processes that last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build bridges

Regardless of what job we hold in our organizations, we all have the opportunity to build relationships that last. Always important but often overlooked as aspect of organizational life, this “build” becomes even more critical as our work forces take on greater cultural, generational, and geographic diversity. Acute short-term pressure for results in our Darwin meets Dilbert organizational lives makes this at the same time both more challenging and more important. In the end, it is people who make the product, experience, and process “builds” possible.

Building relationships that last is not about co-workers and colleagues wanting to become life-long friends. Some of that happens, but by odds and necessity, it will always be the exception rather than the rule. What this “build” is really about is having more people within the workplace actively trying to find the spans of understanding that add up to a better set of sustainable working relationships with which to accomplish the organization’s work. Building relationship bridges that last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build futures

Mentoring and helping others to become better future contributors to building things that last may indeed be reaching lost art status in today’s workplace and maybe even the greater world at large.  It is highly likely that the whole short-term pressure thing is causing this organizational casualty. Overwhelmed people in overwhelmed organizations find it next to impossible to take the time to develop people. Everyone is fully occupied trying to manage their own short-term issues in order to meet their own short-term requirements and needs. Who has time to worry about building others beyond the short-term need?

From a broad organizational sense, this has significantly weakened bench strength everywhere and has led to increased hiring from the outside when positions requiring experiences not found internally do open up. While it may be too soon to know the long-term impacts of all this, it seems likely that it will become even harder to build products, experiences, processes, and bridges that last. Building futures that last is ultimately good for the organization and its stakeholders.

Build something that will last

The good news is that it is definitely not too late.  Everyone just needs to become a bit more of a builder by trying to do just a little more with this one each and everyday. Even with today’s mountain of short-term pressures, individuals making the right choices collectively can build something. We can build something that lasts.

014“You may say I’m a dreamer. 

But I’m not the only one.” 

-John Lennon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Got Feel?

Are you just going through the motions in your job?  Or do you feel it…you know, really feel it?

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Mixed Bag of Feel

Many people go to jobs each day that they outright hate or at least really don’t enjoy very much. Some people awake daily in pre-dawn hours and commute great distances for what – to basically be unhappy for eight hours plus. Each and every day. For various reasons, they do it – day after day, week after week, year after year.  Before they know it, they are locked into a seemingly unbreakable routine for their entire careers. Yes, doing jobs they don’t really like. For a lifetime. What gives?

Fortunately the opposite is also true. And quite often.  Real life people, with whom you come in contact and who seem to really enjoy what they’re doing, really do exist. Think about the guy takes your favorite deli sandwich to the next level.  What about the yoga studio owner who seems totally on this earth to be doing exactly what she’s doing? Then there’s that starving artist-type musician who effortless conveys  a sweet vibe of contentment with his or her art form.  Yes, these people are really out there.

And do you know what?  These people all have something in common. They got feel.

First Level of Feel

And what is this feel that these people got?  Well, for one thing – it is in knowing in their hearts and minds that they’ve picked the right trade, profession, or career.  Square pegs don’t fit in round holes, and when they do, we can see right through it.  As difficult as it was to say, I once counseled an exiting employee not to seek employment in another financial position.  Sometimes disconnects really are that fundamental and irreparable.  Fulfilling this first fundamental of feel requires having the natural talents or acquired learning to even get on the map of occupational or professional competency.

You won’t see this type of feel in a customer service representative who doesn’t enjoy helping people. You won’t see it in a sales person who doesn’t enjoy the challenge of overcoming objections and providing customers with solutions. You won’t see it an engineer who doesn’t have a natural inclination and facility around math and the applied sciences. And you won’t see it an accountant who isn’t good with numbers, the litigator who doesn’t enjoy persuasive debate, a veterinarian who doesn’t like animals, or the actress who shuns the camera.  You get the idea.

Second & Third Tier Feel

A second distinguishing characteristic of those who got feel is that they have a real connection to what they’re doing.  They aren’t just going through the motions.  It’s not just one size fits all, parts is parts, and doesn’t matter to me whether I’m selling refrigerators, automobiles, or timeshares kind of thing.  Ironically this lack of feel has a certain transparency about it that allows us to see right through it.

Some might refer to the feel of connection as passion, but it doesn’t even necessarily have to go that far.  That word can be a little strong at times and is often overused. The feel of connection can be as simple as a natural affinity for a particular industry or product group. For example, a high school drummer friend of mine has made what appears to be a pretty good career working for a cymbal company.  From his Facebook posts featuring outright stars of percussion and his product informational videos, you can tell he’s got feel.

Feel can also derive from cultivated interest or appreciation in what’s going on around you.  In other words, the attributes or foundational characteristics of those around you in the workplace or the business at hand can lead one to feel it.  Maybe your workplace is a non-profit that really makes a positive difference in people’s lives.  Or maybe your business provides a life-sustaining product or does research that ultimately increases our quality of life.   Perhaps you work for architectural firm that specializes in commercially unique design.  Even if your job is not directly involved in product or service delivery in one of these situations, you can still feel it. If you do, you got feel.

Do I got feel?

So, do I got feel?  Yeah, I got feel.  First off I picked one of the professions to which my natural aptitudes and abilities were well-suited.  You see, generically speaking, I am an accountant. There I’ve said it –  an accountant. You know, those folks who are routinely accused of not feeling anything let alone feeling it.  Those born without emotion, compassion, or ability to feel close to anything or anyone.  But it’s not that simple ever, is it?

Signing on to an accounting career pretty much involves agreeing that you will never be the star of the show. If you do become a star of your employer’s show, you either work in public accounting or your company has big problems.  Accordingly you agree to serve in a support role to the primary activities of your employer.  For me, it’s been a career that’s consisted of strong, relatively long runs with only three different employers.

The Wheel of Feel

So let’s spin the big wheel of feel, and we’re only going to need to spin it three times. But nonetheless, around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody knows…..

On our first wheel stop, feel came for me from the perfect corporate culture at the perfect time within which I very naturally cozied up to the company’s noble calling of digging limestone out of the ground, mixing it with specialty polymers, and creating the stunning visuals of resilient vinyl flooring.  Strange as it sounds, my feel for this particular business came from knowing that chemists, engineers, production crews, and product stylists knew how to generate market-leading floors that consumers really wanted to buy.  At least part of this theme would reprise.

Next stop for the wheel would be a marketing services fulfillment business where I never fully connected with the culture.  Because I was Controller and then CFO, there was a certain built-in professional feel for me because I was for the first time in my career able to call most of my own shots in a financial sense.  That part was a lot of fun.  So there was some feel in this respect, but the pick, pack, and ship mantra of the fulfillment industry left me less than fulfilled.  Ultimately in this case, feel and fulfillment did not go together in the final analysis.

As the third wheel stop clicks into place, my connection of feel emanates from an association with an electronics business whose stars are smart in ways that I am clearly not and never will be. To me, it’s hugely impressive (in similar fashion to the aforementioned vinyl mine) that electrical engineers, product managers, and sales/marketing folks can go from design to build to market with solutions that are truly cutting edge from a technology point of view.  To these stars, the products and their own accomplishments are not necessarily anything more than “what it is that we do”, but to me and to others in our larger corporate family, what these people do has a certain geek is chic mystique to it. And it is very impressive.

Huge non-financial dividends of feel exist for those in support positions such as mine who go beyond the sea of mind-numbing part numbers to really feel what is all around us.  On the functional side of the organization, there’s the additional feel kicker of being part of a very highly accomplished and skilled corporate finance team that keeps me on my toes and engaged.

So oh yeah baby, I got feel. Do you?

Even HR

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Short-term pressure for financial results is intense. Companies turn to outsourcing as they try even harder to hit their numbers.  All company functions and departments have fallen under increased scrutiny – even HR.

First Friend

A recent WSJ article (“Companies Say No to Having an HR Department”) highlights this point by providing a few examples of where centralized Human Resources departments have been eliminated (link). Part of the article’s appeal no doubt lies in implied irony and the fact that the mere mention of HR has broad appeal to anyone who has ever had a job.

In most cases, HR is the first line of contact for a job candidate.  In this sense, HR at least temporarily becomes the face of the company. Once a new employee is hired, HR maintains a daily presence in the employee’s life by shepherding the on boarding and orientation. Be it benefits enrollment, relocation assistance, or clarification of work rules and policies, most employees quickly come to view HR as their first friend in a new neighborhood.

Outsourcing Candidate

The varied nature of HR activities makes it a very interesting candidate for outsourcing. Under the outsourceable category, there exists a transactional piece of HR that can be serviced via self-service employee portals. Employees get used to, and may actually in many cases prefer, having their benefits and other employee data impersonally reside somewhere out “in the cloud”. So far so good, but this was the easy part. The rest of the picture is not as clear. In fact, far from it.

One of the justifications cited in the article for outsourcing HR is the concept of moving HR responsibility closer to the action by decentralizing it geographically and organizationally to become an increasingly on site activity performed by departmental managers and supervisors. In my view, this flies in the face of the primary value-adds of an effective HR organization. These are consistency and structure.  As organizations grow, consistency and structure become obvious imperatives to support operations and protect the company.

Putting functions like compensation, hiring and firing, organizational development, performance appraisals, regulatory compliance, and benefits administration into the hands of line management pretty much guarantees that things very quickly turn into amateur hour with little hope for consistency and structure.  It becomes a very hard to control free for all, Wild West-like, swashbuckling, Darwinesque and Dilbert-like compilation of HR practices that can put the company and its assets at risk when placed in the wrong hands.

So, the answer to today’s question as to whether I think companies should outsource, eliminate, or decentralize their HR departments is a resounding no.  Good HR people add value and help businesses.  I have seen it first hand, so I know it’s true!

Bread and Butter

Now here’s where employees who view HR in a certain way walk right into a good old-fashioned haymaker about to be thrown by yours truly.  While appearing to be right-handed and thrown from over the top, this punch really comes from some down and dirty, out in the streets, Golden Gloves corporate experiences with HR.

“Some workers say they feel the absence of an in-house HR staff acutely, especially when it comes to bread-and-butter HR responsibilities such as mediating employee disputes and resolving pay problems.”

Bread and butter – really? Well, no – not really. In fact, stop and get a hold of yourself if you agree with that statement.

Because HR is that first friend, many employees mistakenly believe that the primary function of an HR department is to help them.  While this may be part of the service HR provides to employees who look to HR for such support, it is not from my experience the primary reason HR exists.  What many employees fail to realize is that a large part of what HR is there to do is to protect the company, its owners, and its assets.  It is certainly not the only thing HR does; however, it is arguably one of the most important.

Protectors & Informers

A great example of HR as protector can be seen by those expecting HR to prevent bullying and legal harassment.  HR is likely to address injurious behavior targeting a member of protected class because this constitutes illegal harassment.  By addressing it, HR protects the company from lawsuits, fines, and potentially costly settlements.  Absent HR perception of a legal or regulatory threat, a lot of questionable behavior goes unaddressed. Phone it in – it’s just real life in the trenches.

Enter HR as informer. Assuming confidentiality while venting to or kibitzing with HR can be risky business because at some point your information and views may be interpreted by HR as constituting part of its protective duty.  While not necessarily recognized at the time by HR or employee to have much significance, sometimes these conversations later become increasingly relevant in HR’s view of its duty to protect.

Yes, when I finally write my first best-selling business book, all major corporate functions and their associated heroes, villains, triumphs, and tragedies will be there with us -even HR.

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One Win

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Team USA recently won one. It’s just one win, but for a change, it’s a win. Momentum has to start somewhere for the long road that still lies ahead.  This is about one that we won.

Chinese Take Out

Armstrong World Industries  has announced plans to invest $41 million in its domestic manufacturing capacity. Specifically the global building materials leader is going to produce luxury vinyl commercial tile in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Manufacturing employment at the company’s Lancaster site is expected to increase from 160 to 217 jobs  – a 26% increase.  In today’s world, stories like this have impact that exceeds the numbers.  Although just one win,  it becomes symbolic of the hopes and dreams of many Americans still craning their necks to see a better tomorrow.

What’s most significant about this development is that the protagonist luxury tile product is currently made in China by a third party manufacturer. That’s right – this is actually the reverse of the outsourcing that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing.  Some people refer to this contemporarily far-fetched notion as insourcing or reshoring. If you don’t believe this is really happening, here’s the link to the article. See for yourself – it’s true.

“Humbly Prophetic”?

Maybe scale this self-serving assessment back just a little to “yes, the prior post possibly had some predictive value”. Here’s the link to a previous BizSinc blog post, called “No Bargains” which takes an apples to apples   approach to the economics of outsourcing.  A more financially-oriented version of the TCO (“tee-co”) – Total Cost of Ownership – appeared in an Association of Financial Professionals (AFP) publication  (posted here).   As it should be, this is a pretty hot topic and appears to be warming up a bit more in a positive direction thanks   to news like Armstrong moving production from China to the US.

Symbolism Abounds

The symbolism of the Armstrong story centers in large part around the American workforce.  The $41 million investment is to occur in the same town in which the company remains headquartered and still maintains a small portion of what was once a ginormous plant site.  At peak production during WWII years, the vinyl mine employed close to 8,000 people.  From generation to generation, the local lineages gained solid employment with union-bolstered wages and benefits.  The company was the undisputed pillar of its community.  The vinyl mine was so big that forty years later and at less than one fourth of its war-time employment levels, the monthly electric bills were more than many local businesses grossed in annual sales.  This is an own-eyes fact.

As we’ve seen all too often, what was once seen as a good thing takes on competitive fire which in turn causes change. The vinyl mine  was substantially and systematically dismantled over a relatively short period.  Many believed that management-labor relations played a big part in the vinyl mine’s fall from glory.  Production was moved to other company plants that were deemed as lower cost and possessing more cooperative labor forces.  Consequently, huge numbers of workers were displaced.  The company turned the once behemoth vinyl mine into a relatively small plant in a few short years.  It moved the hundreds of thousands of bricks no one ever thought would or could be moved.

Full Circle at the Vinyl Mine

In its public release, the company mentioned several factors for its decision.  “By bringing this manufacturing to the US, we leverage our manufacturing expertise and create a strong cost, quality, and service position”, says the company.  That’s a mouthful of important stuff right there.  As we’ve seen with the TCO equation, a lower price is not necessarily cheaper if hard to quantify supply chain disruption and inflexibility accompany production in a perceived low cost country (PLCC).

Having essential infrastructure, proximity to its flooring distribution center and technical centers, as well as support of the plant’s workforce were also mentioned by Armstrong as factors in its decision to repatriate luxury tile production.  Wait a second, did they really just say support of the plant’s workforce?  Sometimes things really do come full circle.

Rational Decision Making & Actions

So, with the Armstrong news, we have one win.  Just one, but it’s a big one.  Armstrong’s decision to “bring it back home” was most likely based on the same type of business logic that led it and others to outsource in the first place.  Countries, corporations, and workforces alike must adapt and continuously demonstrate competitiveness.  Armstrong is not moving this production from China to Lancaster, Pa. as a charitable contribution or out of some sudden grasp at sentimentalism.  It’s about making what it thinks is the best decision for its business and shareholders.

It’s also nice to see that the Commonwealth chipped in with some grant funding.  Targeted government incentives that help create good jobs can be timely difference makers.  This story also shows how a company that is forced into bankruptcy and is legally compelled to concede majority control to a third-party trust appears to be calling its own shots again very soon after regaining majority control.

Hammer Time

Hammer_nails_smithonian

You may not be an architect, but with the right tools, you can help build the house.  So grab that hammer and get to work! 

That is, if you have one.  Metaphorically, we all need to have a hammer out there in Corporate America today.  Gone are the days of mid-to-upper level management jobs that are removed from the day-to-day action.  Everything is becoming more hands on.  Heed the call – there is wisdom here for both the employed who wish to remain employed as well as those who find themselves in a prolonged period of career transition.

What is it you do, really?

Let’s get down to basics.  What is it that you do, really?  Maybe you are an Engineering Director or an IT Manager in a company that continues to outsource.  How about a Sales Manager whose company keeps consolidating territories?  Or a Brand Manager who sees support positions dwindling by the second?  In today’s world, each of these positions increasingly distills down to its basic elemental structure.  Yes, it’s about the underlying skills that got you there.  It’s about dancing with the girl or guy you brought to the dance.

Closer to Home

Recently, I felt the tap on the shoulder to move from a Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) position to Controller within the same division of my company.  Let’s just say it’s a darn good thing I had that hammer.  Why?  Because I really needed it, and more importantly because my company expected to find it in my tool box.  In quite the flashback set of moments, seemingly all of a sudden, I am once again making journal entries, reconciling accounts, safeguarding assets, talking in account code strings, and submitting tax packages.  “Should we be subdividing the Other Liabilities account into more descriptive pieces?”, has resurfaced as a question of increased relevance.

Elemental Distillation

Yep, I still got it.  Whatever it is…..that certain accounting something……if nothing else, my hammer and few other tools that round out a functional value set for my employer.  Rediscovering that I can still rock the debits and credits in a well-credentialed controller crew is a good thing, as is bringing business-side financial knowledge to the position.  It should allow me to ultimately take the position in some new directions, while in the short-term providing an easier transition for my employer versus an external hire.  Quite a lot of words there.  Here’s the distillation update.  It’s about my fundamental accounting skills providing my employer with a solution…..and of course, dancing with the girl that I brought to the party in the first place.

Goldilocks & the C-Suite Shuffle

Moving away from my own story now and back to a key takeaway.   Have you met “Experienced” CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, and Sales VP’s who are in long-term career transition?  Of course not in every case, but at some point after a full cycle of one month+ off for every $10K of income, the market no longer sees them as VPs and Chiefs. Sure, some live off of nice severance packages for quite some time and land well. Countless others languish in the down-market rather than grabbing a hammer or related occupational implement and getting back to work.  It’s a bit of the Goldilocks Syndrome, but it can be about ego and not letting go of dated self-image.  Ultimately, it becomes about a decision to stay out of the game and wait it out on the side line, even though the skill-set distillation process yields immediately employable elements.

Better Days Ahead

As the market picks up, there’s definitely going to be more opportunity, but it will be different opportunity.  There’s been a tremendous amount of consolidation.  The underlying tools of the trade have become increasingly important.  To an increased extent, white-collar America now consists of largely carpenters and tradesmen.  Having the tools and being willing to use them is a necessary first step.  Then it becomes about layering on top the elements that theoretically should narrow the outsourcing gap.  Home field advantage should count for something, as represented by the underlying skill PLUS business knowledge, communication, and people skills.  It involves having a value package that ties up neatly and cleanly with the necessary ribbons and bows.  Although taking many forms, it ultimately comes down to being able to do something useful for an employer…..and continuing to renew one’s own occupantional vitality.

Photo credit – Frabel

Kickin’ It

“Hey, if you think real hard, maybe we can stop the rain!”

Woodstock 1969 (Bethel, NY)

Are you thinking that the quote doesn’t quite match the picture?  Well, it actually does.  Let’s explore the connection.  This naively hopeful thought has long-endured as a symbol of the positive thinking that got the ball rolling for an entire generation.  Today it has applicability within the more contemporary context of fixing a broken economy.  The message here is that sometimes it really is the thought that counts. Concept and activity (in some direction) can justifiably trump pinpoint execution.

Sometimes the key is just to get the ball rolling…. in some semi-logical direction.  Once the ball is moving, its energy becomes something that we can grab onto and manage.  Yes, it will come down to execution and leadership in the end.  It always does.  However, the power of positive thought should never be underestimated as a source of the collective spark and momentum necessary to solve complex problems.

Is the tide turning? 

With respect to off-shoring, we are starting to hear considerably more chatter about higher than anticipated total costs of ownership, supply chain inflexibility, and intellectual property concerns.   It seems that more people have become willing to acknowledge that the simplistic lure of lower unit costs is fool’s gold if offset by other factors that adversely impact important value propositions. This is especially true if customer service and brand loyalty are what takes a hit.  Is the tide turning?  Too soon to tell.

Increased Chatter

In some industries and industry niches, the increased chatter may be the first sign of activity in some direction.  It would be misleading to hint at a universality in these two electronics industry examples (CE Pro, Bloomberg Business Week), but they do illustrate the increased chatter. People are definitely talking.  One of the words they are increasingly using is reshoring, which would certainly be reassuring for many.  Here’s another example in an USA Today article that discusses a technology known as additive manufacturing in the form of 3-D printing that many are hopeful will find broader application and accelerate reshoring and job creation.  This is very cool stuff.

But Talk is Cheap

At some point, positive thoughts and those initial bits of energy only get us so far.  To borrow from a now-retired senior executive of a Fortune 1000 company, “Somebody’s gotta do something if we’re gonna get this cow out of the ditch.”  Activity in some direction needs to take over.  Better yet, purposeful activity in several directions needs to occur simultaneously to fix our economy. To be sure, there will be false starts and wrong turns.  This is just the way it will be and ground that must be covered on the way to finding solutions.

Coming Full Circle – Bloom & Boom

Many experts point to a massive retooling investment that America needs to make in itself.  They are not referring to molds, machinery, and fixtures, but rather to the workforce itself.   Here’s an example of one activity aimed in this direction (Wall Street Journal).  Again, it is only activity in one direction. But it is activity.  And it has a direction.  To come full circle, the activity in the WSJ article deals with retraining members of that once-idealistic generation above that wanted to stop the rain at Woodstock.  We now refer to this group as “Boomers”.

Collaborative Partnerships

Collaborative partnerships (as above) between business and education are increasingly promoting online education that is aimed at retooling US capacity by retraining Boomers to work in promising growth fields.  This emerging trend also represents a way in which higher education is attempting to solve part of its own volume issues by reaching this “new” audience again-this time at a distinctly different point in their lives.  In the case of our additive manufacturing/3-D printing example, government is stepping up to fund a $45 million project share.  These examples represent activity in some direction.  It’s a start.  Hopefully the kick-start needed to get and keep the economic ball rolling.

Photo Credit – Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

Bad Math

Global Perspective

“Despite America’s knack for ingenuity, the forces of change face some heavy crosswinds.   A wheezing economy, a dearth of college engineering students, sagging high school math and science scores, and sinking research-and-development investments have heightened concerns about the USA’s ability to compete with rising powers China and India. By Goldman Sachs’ estimate, the Chinese economy will overtake the U.S. economy by 2027 and almost double its size by 2050.”

Jon Swartz’s USA Today article goes beyond this quote to question how the U.S. economy can effectively compete when India and China reportedly graduate close to 1 million engineering students each year in comparison to about 10% of this total for the U.S..  This less than cheery assessment of the plight of our US economy deals with one part of the issue.

Workforce Shortage

There’s a back-story here that is also worth considering.  As if not scary enough that the U.S. risks falling behind in the so-called global “brain race” in technical fields, some experts and employers are increasingly pointing to what could be a very serious problem emerging within our already-shrunken manufacturing sector.  More specifically, it is a growing notion that a significant chunk of the U.S. manufacturing workforce may lack basic “shop math” skills.

“Shop math” encompasses such basics as arithmetic, decimals, and fractions, but can also extend somewhat into more abstract areas such as geometry, trigonometry, and yes, even calculus.  “You’d be amazed at how many people can’t read a ruler to one-sixteenth of an inch,” said Lee Cohn of Case Paper Co., when asked for his opinion in Jane M. Von Bergen’s recent Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Says Anthony Girifalco of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, “We want to get people back to work, and there’s a supply of bodies……There’s demand in the manufacturing sector. But how do you close the skills gap?”

Next Steps

As U.S. companies continue to see off-shoring as a lever of competitive necessity, the above “skills gap” could not come at a worse time.  Technological advances are sure to widen this gap, as the very nature of core work functions continues to change at an increasing rate.  The basic issue will come down to whether or not anyone is going to do anything that signficantly addresses the problem.

Major questions loom.  Will public policy makers step in?  Will manufacturers and other employers take new steps to educate employees?  Will educators, school districts, and universities step up with innovative solutions?  Together, these groups will need to find new ways to take the next steps toward a solution to this very real problem.

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