As industries have become more global, and cheaper skilled labor has become more easily available, our domestic skilled workers have become devalued by no fault of their own.
Enterprises such as ours, which are involved in supporting domestic manufacturing, are losing the battle by having to support higher pay scales - as well as spending more on capital machinery, technology and meeting government requirements. Unfortunately, as we've lost large portions of what used to be a vibrant manufacturing base, skilled middle-class workers face declining opportunities to try to progress.
Some suggest continued investment in technology is the answer, but the same knowledge is available worldwide. Investment in technology alone is not the answer, unless it can be used to create an effective advantage.
Some expect the government's enforcement of fair-trade agreements will solve the problem, but globalization should actually help international companies grow, which in turn should help the U.S. economy.
As manufacturers adjust their market focus and offer different value propositions to compete globally, major industries will need to implement solutions for developing tomorrow's skilled worker on a smaller scale.
Since changes in the private sector happen faster than change in government, smaller companies like ours believe bold industry leaders can help rebuild a skilled workforce by generating exciting opportunities for companies to innovate and add value somewhere in the cycle of designing, producing and/or assembling a finished product. In many cases, we could find ways to do things faster and cheaper, but we should concentrate on finding ways to produce things better - not just faster and cheaper.
As manufacturers, we should be committed to transitioning the skilled workforce by identifying the capability of workers to adapt to new technology, training skilled workers to use new technology and deploying new technology effectively with workers capable of understanding its value.
In short, we can succeed only with a true partnership between business, skilled workers and technology manufacturers. Technology manufacturers need to better understand the industry's needs in order to provide businesses with solutions rather than useless features we pay for and never use.
Seniority not enough
When assessing a skilled worker, we look at skills, talent, knowledge, experience and potential to determine his or her long-term fit at our company.
For example, we believe experience alone is highly overrated. People tend to use experience to overcompensate or hide deficiencies. With technology changing so quickly, any experience over five years may be obsolete and not carry a value to an organization. Tenure, seniority or ``putting in the time'' is not good enough. Talent, knowledge and potential are equally important factors to determine skill sets and a fit with the company.
Many manufacturers forgot how to recruit and set long-term career paths for talented younger workers. Instead, they incrementally increased their own costs by engaging in bidding wars, stealing experienced skilled workers from competitors at marginally more expensive employment pay and benefits. This dynamic has shortchanged what created the vibrant manufacturing environment of training and apprenticeship that existed during the U.S. industrial domination of the 1900s.
Skilled workers themselves need to recognize they share the responsibility for the decline of opportunities in manufacturing.
We live in times when young people expect immediate success and income. We need more young and talented skilled workers to recognize that wages of $10-$25 an hour create a better opportunity than entry-level service-sector jobs. And eventually those workers can attain $30 an hour or more through hard work.
The skilled worker must not have unreasonable expectations about building a career overnight.
Teamwork is integral to our organization. It must be for any other business because the ability to share knowledge across an organization is vitally important to be able to provide solutions, products and long-term value to customers.
Review your business
Specifically, here's how we put the theories into practice:
* Review the personnel infrastructure and bring it in line with today's industry needs.
Like Jack Welch said, ``People first, strategy second.'' This concept confuses most managers. They think it means if you take care of your people, everything else will take care of itself.
Positions are constantly changing as market needs and demands change. An account manager with different technical or commercial skill sets might replace a sales representative. Or, as machines became more automated, some machine operators have evolved into in-line quality inspection operators.
A winning team is not merely a group of talented people, but rather a group of people maximizing their unique talents in a way that contributes to the company's vision and mission. Most new and innovative ideas will fail if people are in place who cannot contribute to these common goals.
* Determine the skills needed for tomorrow.
In the past, when manufacturers wanted to hire a new skilled worker trainee, they would look for a candidate who liked to work with his or her hands, was mechanically inclined and had good math skills. A candidate could start working at a decent wage and be given the opportunity to grow with experience, all without a college education.
Our candidates for tomorrow's skilled worker look quite different.
The skilled worker of tomorrow must possess strong computer technology skills, good communication and problem-solving skills, and have a desire to be challenged in a multitask environment. Modern manufacturers must begin again to take a long-term look at all these values of a skilled worker.
* Incorporate training and employee development into the organization.
A training program can be a company's best investment ever made. However, improperly implemented, it can be a huge waste of money. This can hurt small companies and is probably the most significant reason smaller companies shy away from major training initiatives.
We developed tools and metrics that assessed the entire staff for what skills they currently possess, what potential they have, and most importantly, what they enjoy and want to do.
We expect how we maximize our investment in our people to determine our success. Once we determine a budget and time frame, we lay out the first phase of our training program and commit to ongoing programs. Our human capital investment should allow our employees to succeed in the U.S.
* Delegate authority.
People and technology are a winning combination. Not concentrating on both is useless. When you have the right people in place, they need to have the authority and accept responsibility for making decisions in new technology investments.
Only with the right leadership can we harness the power of new technology and reap its benefits. Our company leaders are committed to finding and keeping the right people, then providing everyone with the necessary training they need to excel.
General accounting practices have taught business leaders to look at people's labor as an expense when it comes to financial statements. Like capital equipment and technology investment, employees must also be treated as an investment.
With new policies in place, we believe we have appreciated our skilled labor force rather than depreciated it like capital equipment does over time.
As your manufacturing partner, we are willing to share our views about how to develop an industry training program that will resurrect and develop the skilled worker, or in our case, the apprentice mold maker.
Puglielli is president of ProMold Plastics Inc., a mold maker and custom injection molder in Cromwell, Conn.