Jul 31, 2007

Manufacturing jobs in Michigan

At a meeting last week of SME chapter leaders and student chapter faculty advisors, one subject of discussion was Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s constant refrain that there are no manufacturing jobs here. In fact, I’ve been saying that laid-off engineers and skilled workers ought to take a weekend trip to Alabama or Georgia to see if they like it there.

Mostafa Mehrabi of University of Detroit-Mercy said that what he needed were statistics. I offered to chase some down. After all, most of us have been reacting to anecdotal evidence. So I took a look at two things – the Detroit News want-ads and the Michigan Department of Labor employment projections.

Realistically, there are flaws in the data. We don’t know whether the jobs open now pay as much as the UAW-negotiated wages. I studied the methodology of the US Census Department’s employment projections a couple of years ago. The first thing we know about forecasts is that they are always wrong. The projections take into account retirements and people leaving a job classification, with some sophisticated modeling of average attrition of distinct age cohorts. Unfortunately, they build up each projection from a number of individual job titles, some of which represent a small number of jobs. A system is more predictable than any of its parts, so when they total up a lot of little job classes, they introduce a lot of error into the mix. The margin of error for any of the small groups can be up to 20%. So let’s say there’s a possible average of 10% an overly optimistic projection.

As for one or two weeks’ study of one paper’s job ads, well, that doesn’t include jobs filled by word of mouth, internal postings or online advertising.

Openings have often been hard to fill, according to employers and workforce development people I’ve spoken to. That’s not because there is a shortage of workers. It’s because there’s a shortage of people with the right skills. For four-year and two-year colleges, that’s good news. You can’t just walk into the employment office of a factory the day after graduation from high school and get a job paying $20 an hour. (When I was married to an autoworker in the early 70s, he made twice what I could make as a college graduate with a degree in business.)

The other reason jobs are hard to fill is that they all require extensive experience. I can understand that. But that means employers need to look at their responsibilities to offer apprenticeships, internships and educational assistance. There’s the argument that you end up training somebody who immediately goes on to work for somebody else. Sometimes that’s true. But nobody complains about hiring someone that another employer trained. And it might not be a bad idea to compare executive salaries to what you’re paying factory workers or people just entering the workforce.

OK, what about the data I promised you? Here’s the Detroit News:

I noticed something else in this week’s paper. There are at least two companies advertising for a bunch of engineering, technician and skilled trades aerospace jobs. Must be a few companies taking advantage of the local high-skilled workforce. The market can behave in wondrous ways.

Now for the state departments of labor projections. I used Michigan, then added Indiana, Kentucky and Florida for comparison. No great amount of thought went into selecting states for comparison. I could have done more, but the site I used has a tedious download method. I selected a number of engineering, technician and production job titles, again, unscientifically. Then I totaled the numbers to keep from including 11 pages of data, so allow for compounding of error. (If you want the complete spreadsheet, email me at karenwilhelm[at]hotmail.com.) The projections are based on data collected every two years until 2004, so declines after 2001 are included. However you read them, the numbers say Michigan has a lot of job opportunities coming. You’re looking at annual job openings, the number available each year through 2014.

So maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to tell everyone to train for “technology,” meaning IT, jobs. There’s plenty of manufacturing technology work to go around.

Jul 18, 2007

Remember falling in love?

Lately my pals in our SME chapter have been talking about education, scholarships and what we could do to bridge the gap between the workplace and the school. In fact, Natalie Lowell has pulled together a team of sponsors, members, educators and students for a Careers in Technology event in Grand Rapids in September. The 400 spots for students to participate filled up fast.

This started me thinking about why people become engineers or technicians. Education is about the joy of learning, and people becoming able to accomplish difficult things. It’s about seeing people at work who really know what they’re doing, and knowing that you helped make that happen.

But, dear readers, a lot of you got hooked on things technical at some magic moment in your life. When did you first feel that you’d found something cool and thought, “I want to do that.” It might have been seeing a brand new part come out of a machine, discovering the elegance of math or science, the beauty of design. It might have been building something in the garage or in shop class, fixing your bike or car, or solving a problem with your computer. Who was with you? Where were you? How old were you? How were you inspired to pursue your education or career?

Or think about a time when you influenced a student, your son or daughter, a boy scout or girl scout, to get excited about math, science, engineering or manufacturing, how things are made, or what engineers do. Was this a kid who just needed a bit of direction? Was it a kid struggling to understand a concept in math, science or technology, and you were able to help him or her understand it? Were you able to find a student an internship that really turned him or her on? How did you inspire that young person? What did you say, or show them? What did you feel at that moment?

Natalie told me about taking shop class in school as an elective. She stood in front of a wood lathe, tool in hand, ready to start turning a bowl. She felt a little scared. But she went to work, and when she finished that bowl she was hooked on machines. It was completely unlike what she felt about sewing a shirt in home ec.

My husband Mike got his ticket out of the warehouse to the computer room by convincing the hiring manager that he liked solving problems. Our house had been invaded by a mouse, and rather than going to a hardware store for a trap, he decided that he’d cobble together a live trap himself. I think he used a cardboard box, a tined object that might have been an angel food cake cutter and the spring mechanism from an ordinary mousetrap. Night after night, the mouse beat the closing of the cage, but Mike kept adjusting his mechanism. Finally the mouse was caught. Sadly, he was killed by the door closing on his spine.

As for a student’s joy, I felt it once when my son was about 16. He was helping a friend fix his car sound system, and loped through the living room where I was reading, on his way to the driveway from the basement. He didn’t stop, just said, “I love fixing things!” as he breezed through.

In the midst of this inquiry, I picked up the June 25, 2007 issue of the New Yorker and found myself reading about Cecil Belmond, a structural engineer and trustee of Arup, an international engineering firm based in London. After his family moved to Nigeria from Sri Lanka, he enrolled in the university. “I learned a lot about three-dimensional thinking in Nigeria,” he told David Owen. “I had a Senegalese maths professor who put pictures in my head that I hadn’t had before. It was just stunning. Something was triggered, and I felt a new spatial awareness.”

I’m not a good example. My dad tried to be Mr. Wizard to my sisters and me and I was always profoundly uninterested in why the moon lights up or why the sky is blue. Even making nylon spin itself out of a beaker of stuff failed to impress me. Sorry. Much later, he advised me not to become an engineer – not because he’d figured out that I didn’t care much, but because, “Nobody likes a lady chemist.”

I did have a glimmering once. I was working for the summer for a family friend who owned a machine shop. I was so bored after I finished up the small amount of office work there was, and asked if I could work in the shop. That was back when a person had to turn the cranks on the lathe. One product he produced was a stainless steel die that had soft-drink logos engraved in high relief. The dies were mounted in a wheel, heated, and used to brand the logos in the cork inside the bottle caps. It was finicky work to cut the metal away from the design with a pantograph engraver. I had to do both plunge cuts and cuts that entered from the edge of the piece. Just a tiny bit too much force or speed and the engraving tool would break, and they got dull pretty fast.

Eventually I might find myself sitting and waiting for a machinist to come and sharpen my cutting tools for me. Then came the day when my boss concluded he might as well just show me how to do the sharpening on the grinding wheel that was in the same room as the engraver. I was intrigued to learn that the tool actually had a spiral shape to it, and the tip was cut off at just the right angle. When I actually got my first tool sharpened right, I felt pretty good. Not good enough to make manufacturing a career.

Still, in more than 20 years working with people in manufacturing, publishing things they could use to do their work better, I’ve never gotten tired of hearing their stories. So, what’s yours?

Jul 8, 2007

You could get out of the fog and start clearing the dust

Jane Larson of the Arizona Republic reported Jun. 27, 2007 that a company can surmount what Goldratt called a constraint in the marketplace.

MistAmerica Corp., manufacturer of stainless-steel misting systems, found a new market outside residential pools and commercial patios, a seasonal industry if there ever was one. The misting systems provide cooling as well as moody fog around the pool or fountain.

It started offering its $3,000 misters to industrial customers for use in suppressing dust, and the expansion has given the company a year-round market and helped push up sales 40 percent since last year, founder Jonathan Marsh said. MistAmerica also has added a service department, which Marsh said is unusual in the small and fragmented industry.

I don't know if Marsh uses lean in manufacturing operations or not, but he has the answer to the conundrum faced by a lot of people who've done so. How do you use newly freed-up employees and floor space?

It takes creativity, but this is what a lean leader needs to develop. Get out, find out how a different market works, what potential customers need, how they make decisions. And if you're in an industry or location facing hard times, don't fall into pessimism. You're not just supplying a physical product -- you're supplying a talented workforce, the ability to put together efficient systems that can beat your potential competitors, and the consciousness that it all starts with the customer.
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm