During National Manufacturing Week, Fred Keller delivered a message from the injection molding floor of Cascade Engineering Inc. straight to Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez: The country needs to train factory workers better.
The Commerce Department's 12-member Manufacturing Council delivered its list of top ``action items'' to improve U.S. manufacturing to Gutierrez at a March 22 roundtable discussion during National Manufacturing Week in Rosemont. Education was mentioned several times, as the manufacturing leaders asked for expanded worker training through government-industry partnerships and more hands-on education for students to ensure a supply of high-tech workers.
Keller handled the education presentation, speaking directly to Gutierrez. The founder and chief executive officer of Cascade is chairman of the Manufacturing Council's U.S. workforce subcommittee. He called for ``continuous development and continuous learning of a skilled workforce,'' to create the flexible, teamwork-oriented factory worker of the 21st century.
Keller noted that, despite pressure on manufacturing from the global economy, modern factories often face a shortage of skilled people. ``The good news is that the jobs of today are more interesting and exciting than they used to be,'' he said. ``The bad news is that they all take a higher level of skills than they used to.''
Older industrial workers also are retiring, which will create an experience and skills gap when they are replaced by younger ones, he said.
``We simply must not let the crisis of our workforce slow us down,'' Keller told Gutierrez.
Cascade, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., has earned a national reputation for its welfare-to-work program. One key, Keller said, has been to give participants easy access to on-the-job training and education.
During a discussion with Gutierrez, several other council members said failures of the U.S. education system mean firms must pay too much for basic training.
President George W. Bush created the Manufacturing Council in 2004, naming Al Frink assistant secretary for manufacturing and services. Frink told Gutierrez he is concerned that young people still think manufacturing is a dirty, smoke-belching business. He encouraged factory officials to host school tours and work with local universities and job fairs.
``We need to soften the images of manufacturing. We need to promote real-world factories,'' Frink said.
Gutierrez advised businesspeople, especially those proficient in science and math, to volunteer in schools.
Gutierrez has a manufacturing background in the food industry as former chairman and CEO of cereal maker Kellogg NA Co.
In a keynote speech before the Manufacturing Council meeting, Gutierrez praised U.S. manufacturing for productivity gains that outpace the overall economy. Manufacturing accounts for about 12 percent of gross domestic product, but he said that figure is misleadingly low because factory production drives lots of spinoff services.
Gutierrez said the Bush administration will continue to advocate free trade and tax cuts.
``Economic policy choices should not be dictated by fear,'' he said. ``Free trade is our best hope to raise living standards around the world.''