Canadian auto suppliers know they have to draw talented, technically minded young people for their industry to thrive, but those students are not paying any attention to old-line manufacturing firms.
Instead, they are taking career advice from Gil Grissom and the rest of the fictional staff from television's CSI and other top-ranked TV programs.
``It's a fact of life that today's guidance counselor is the television,'' said Eugene Luczkiw, director of the Institute for Enterprise Education. ``Kids are saying they want to go into forensic science and police work because that's what they see on TV.''
If companies want to compete for those future leaders, they will have to make a serious effort to create the type of work environment that can lure top people, he said.
The institute in St. Catharines, Ontario, and the Toronto-based Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association teamed up on a survey of 37 companies, looking at the biggest challenges facing auto suppliers.
While pricing and global competition rank high, firms participating in the ``Autoshift 2002'' study said that five years from now, they expect their biggest challenge to be attracting and retaining talented people.
``We did a lot of one-on-one interviews with [chief executive officers],'' Luczkiw said. ``These people have a pretty good idea of what's going on, and they all said that they know they have a problem with attracting good people.''
Those problems mean more than just filling spots on the manufacturing floor or in cubicles, he added. To survive, auto suppliers must have a continuous supply of new and proprietary programs. Those new ideas will come from people.
``The fact is, a lot of the commodity parts we're doing here, they could easily do in Mexico or China,'' Luczkiw said.
``Our hope is that we can continue to innovate and come up with new products the industry wants.''
``To innovate, we need innovators,'' added Gerald Fedchun, APMA president.
Thirty percent of the firms rank people as their biggest challenge five years from now, with business growth second at 26 percent and global competitiveness at 24 percent.
Nearly 90 percent of the midsize firms, those with 500-1,000 employees, said they are concerned about an impending shortage of skilled workers, and all of those businesses said they have experienced problems trying to recruit workers during the past two years, according to the study.
Most manufacturers, though, simply lack experience with developing creative workplaces, Luczkiw said. Instead, they have had to focus on operations, scrap rates and deliveries - not flexible hours and free-form thinking.
As a result, the auto-supply industry as a whole is seen as an uninviting career and one without a real future.
``They put people in cubicles, tell them what do, when to do it, and slap their wrist if they step out of that box and speak out,'' he said.
There are exceptions, though, Luczkiw said, noting that auto supplier Woodbridge Group of Mississauga, Ontario - a supplier of urethane foam and energy absorbers - and machinery maker Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. of Bolton, Ontario, both have earned reputations as places where people are given opportunities to grow.
``Our more-progressive members see that and they know what they have to do,'' Fedchun said. ``Part of our job is to get this information out to the smaller manufacturers.''
Fedchun is encouraging companies to reach out to teens and their parents to introduce them to potential jobs in the auto industry.
At the same time, he wants the APMA and its leaders to create a training program dealing with finding and retaining workers, including real-life lessons from successful manufacturers.
Future studies from the institute will take a closer look at the impact of employment shortages at plastics processors and toolmakers.
``The advantages we've had with [U.S. and Canadian] exchange rates isn't going to continue,'' Luczkiw said. ``We've got to do more.''