Anti-manufacturing bias ripples across economy

David E. Cole

There is an air of celebration as we enter the new year in Detroit. It’s well deserved. In the span of a few short years, our industry was able to “roll up our sleeves” and save what has proven to be the quintessential American industry over the last 100 years.

Those dark days of the Great Recession — which was actually a Depression in Auto — seem to have passed, put to rest in the realization that 2015 shattered all records for U.S. automotive sales. We made the hard decisions, we sacrificed together, we humbled ourselves before the entire world and we fought for the industry we know and love. More importantly, we learned to think strategically about the challenges we will face in the future.

We live in a complicated world, and there will always be threats to our economy, our security and our well-being as a nation and as an industry. While the prospects for 2016 are very strong, life in the auto business is growing more uncertain with a host of challenging issues stemming from both macro and micro factors arising in every corner of the globe. We still face a highly unstable international market and tough regulations here at home. An explosion of new technology offers unprecedented opportunities and a new set of potential challenges. If we learned anything in the past 10 years, we’ve come to understand that the very survival of our industry will depend on our ability to “peer over the horizon” to anticipate and respond to an ever changing, highly complex set of issues.

It is just one of those unforeseen challenges that we believe poses the greatest threat to not just the automobile industry, but to our ability as a nation to maintain a viable production capacity across all industries.

The issue that should be keeping us awake at night? Future workforce development.

It’s a modern paradox that — through advanced technology and improved industry productivity — we can now build “big tech” items like cars and trucks competitively with anybody in the world, but that we may not be able to continue to do so because of the lack of a properly educated and skilled workforce.

Sadly, a silent prejudice against manufacturing-related pursuits has arisen, especially among our young people. The glamour of inventing the next great computer app, or the lure of the service industry, mixed with outdated ideas about the true nature of manufacturing have shaped a generation of students to ignore such opportunities. Too often when a student finds an interest in “making things,” he or she will go home to find a parent who says “not my child.”

The exodus of highly skilled baby boomers from the workforce will skyrocket over the next 10 years and, at the same time, today’s manufacturing careers require a level of preparation not seen in earlier generations. That means workers can not quickly come into manufacturing careers when positions arise. The recipe is in place for a serious workforce crisis in the very near future.

Looking only at the auto industry highlights the significant consequences our entire country will face. A job at an auto manufacturer has an economic multiplier of about 10, meaning that for every job at an original equipment manufacturer like Ford, GM or FCA there are nine jobs elsewhere in suppliers or spin-off careers in the community. That “coveted” Wall Street job only has a multiplier of about 2. Auto suppliers have a multiplier of 5-6. As such, manufacturing is one of the key foundations of our economy that undergirds almost every other industry in the United States. And the entire system is at risk today because of our workforce challenges.

To help address this impending crisis, we have created a not-for-profit organization called Building America’s Tomorrow aimed at bringing the message of modern manufacturing to America’s young people and sparking a veritable movement to take workforce development seriously. GM and KPMG understood the challenge and stepped up to provide the initial funding for Building America’s Tomorrow, and our goal is that other organizations will join the effort.

The overall program operates at both the school level and amidst the broader American public. Within schools, the plan is to partner with great organizations and efforts like SAE International’s “A World in Motion” and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ (SME) PRIME program to open the world of manufacturing to students throughout America. On the broader societal level, the goal is to help change the prevailing ideas about manufacturing through national television specials, PSA campaigns and advertising, and a host of related online initiatives. More information is available at www.buildingamericastomorrow.com.

But our organization is only part of the solution. Truly transforming the modern impressions about manufacturing will require the development of what we call a “grand coalition” of businesses, organizations, schools, parents and students who will join hands to reintroduce manufacturing to a deeply cynical nation and to provide tangible opportunities for today’s students (tomorrow’s workforce) to see and experience the incredible world of manufacturing for themselves.

The effort will not neatly fit into any short-term, “quarterly results” type of mindset, and the dividends will not be realized until several years into the future. But the short-term mindset is exactly what we outgrew over the past decade as we all learned to take the longer look and think strategically. This is a problem we can solve, but only with concerted, cooperative and vigorous effort of the sort our whole industry employed to dig ourselves out of the grave and turn in an all-time record in the span of a few short years. Let’s build a team to head off this future workforce crisis and give our children, and our children’s children the chance to turn in some records of their own.

David E. Cole is chairman of AutoHarvest and Building America’s Tomorrow, and chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. John Damoose is executive director of Building America’s Tomorrow.