(Oct. 9, 2006) — Factory worker certification is back in the news, with the announcement of an ambitious program to measure and certify skilled “production technicians” across the broad scope of U.S. manufacturing — more than 10 million people.
The National Association of Manufacturers threw its support behind the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council's program to measure and certify the nation's skilled factory employees. Leaders of both groups announced the certification plan at a press conference in Washington Sept. 25.
Certainly, this effort is needed. As anyone reading this already knows, the definition of factory worker has changed forever. Unskilled jobs are drying up in the United States, as the easy jobs (and some challenging ones as well) are moving to China, Mexico and other low-cost countries. Today, you need technical smarts, teamwork skills and above all, flexibility.
In nearly every survey of manufacturers, a shortage of skilled people gets ranked as a major problem. Certification is attractive because it lets everyone know that a given employee meets a defined skills set. At least in theory, higher certification equals higher wages and more-efficient, profitable companies.
The entire nation benefits.
Ready to salute the flag?
Wait a minute. Pardon us for some skepticism. Plastics News has covered the ups and downs of certification efforts by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the Society of Plastics Engineers —and there have been plenty of downs.
The big downer came in 1999, when SPE ended its program to certify “plastics technologists” after only three years. Only 173 people got certified, and SPE ended up writing off $500,000 it loaned to the effort.
SPE's program suffered from a lack of focus, and importantly, a lack of industry support.
For NAM and MSSC, getting business executives to support certification for production employees, even highly skilled ones, is going to be difficult. Having NAM support the program is critical, since NAM is led by a broad base of manufacturing executives — just the sort of people whose long-term support will be needed to keep it alive and pay the bills. (It was noteworthy that top executives of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co. spoke at the kickoff press conference).
At NPE 2006, SPI turned over its training and certification work to Nypro Inc.
So here's our advice to NAM and MSSC: Make sure your certification is well-funded, since it may take many years, if ever, to become self-sustaining. Make a commitment for the long-term, and stick to it.
Above all, be patient. Don't expect to come up with a German-style national program of apprenticeships and skill measurement, ingrained in the business culture, any time soon. This is America and we just don't do things that way. A lot of CEO-types just won't care.
We do like that the program will cover fundamental skills like blueprint reading, math, circuits and basic machining. All skilled workers need to know this, and you can bet China is gearing up this type of learning.
NAM will have to sell, sell, sell this unprecedented idea of a national certification for skilled factory people. It will take time, money and patience.