MFG Advocate …

Making skilled labor and trades a hero for our times

By  Penny Brown, MTAdvocacy Manager

I grew up in southwest Ohio, home to immigrants from Germany and Poland and Italy and lots of other folks from Old World Europe. We have an Oktoberfest and Italian and Polish festivals; places where you can eat kielbasa and cannelloni and wursts of all types while listening to folk music and trying your luck at the carnival games. 

The heritage went beyond the festivals, too. Today you can walk around Cincinnati (and dozens of other cities like it) and see examples of vintage beautiful craftsmanship – woodwork, glasswork, all types of ornate and rich details that were made skillfully and lovingly by hand. It was a culture that valued trades.

It echoes to a different time, but recently I was at an event here in DC that was focusing on the evolution of how we work. Specifically, are “smart machines” threatening to leave all of us behind with fewer job opportunities? And in a time when manufacturing needs it more than ever, is it even possible for enough workers to develop the necessary skills?

The region where I grew up went from an automotive manufacturing hotbed to a place left decimated by the auto industry’s downfall. Manufacturing is making its comeback there, however, as something more advanced and nimble, bringing up the local economy with it. No, it doesn’t employ as many people as it once did, yet it faces a great conundrum in finding the skilled people it needs. I feel like this is partly the result of a larger national problem: Somewhere along the way, we lost our respect for the trades. 

As a nation, we started to buy in to the idea that the children of plumbers and machinists and welders needed to go to college, so they could do something other than plumbing or machining or welding. They should work in an office. They should strive for a white-collar life. This was a cultural sign of “something better,” that you’d made it in the world.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, domestic manufacturing took a hit and much of our making started to move offshore. Mostly, we shrugged and just accepted this as the way of the world. Our prosperity instead would come from elsewhere – IT or finance or something similar. Our collective feeling was that manufacturing just wasn’t all that important and that we had moved on to something more “glamorous.”

Years later, this culture mindset has led to erosion in our labor pool. And now we’re faced with a huge skills gap, but still a prevailing attitude that trades aren’t a “preferred” career path. Everyone needs a four-year degree. Everyone still needs to work at a desk, in front of a computer screen. 

So I started to wonder: How can we give trades more respect?

The good news is there is more reason than ever to be excited about manufacturing – not just as the main driver of our economic growth and high standard of living, but as an outlet for our innovative spirit and boundless imagination. The maker movement isn’t just fueling people’s interest in creating things with their hands. It’s also giving people more access than ever to the ability to manufacture goods. Groups like Maker’s Row are allowing “regular people” to take their ideas and designs and find a place to get them made. Breaking down the barriers to making is allowing for a democratization of entrepreneurship. 

The truth is, manufacturing in my hometown will never look the same, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. My hope is that as manufacturing becomes more flexible and accessible, we see a cultural shift, where trades and craftsmanship are something to be valued again – not just something you do because you didn’t “make it” to an office job.

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