Advanced manufacturing and the difference between jobs and work

Stephen Ezell, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (left), Mark Johnson, US Department of Energy (center) and Greg Scheu at The Hill’s policy breakfast, March 23.

Panel discussion touches on a touchy subject

On Wednesday, March 23, The Hill newspaper hosted a policy breakfast in Washington, DC (video available) focused on advanced manufacturing. ABB sponsored the event and our Americas president, Greg Scheu, was on hand for a panel discussion with Stephen Ezell, Vice President at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, and Mark Johnson, Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Office at the US Department of Energy.

While the discussion touched on a variety of topics, the question of education, worker training and jobs came up several times. Greg Scheu noted that while the US is “the greatest market in world for university collaboration,” industry and government leaders need to focus on “more vocational education.”

Mark Johnson added that we need to get young people excited about manufacturing, citing the FIRST robotics competition—which ABB supports—as a way to do that. This all reminded me of things I heard from two different ABB leaders in two very different contexts, but that speak to the question of manufacturing and jobs.

The first was from Roger Bailey, then head of ABB’s Power Products division in North America, when he was speaking at a Marbles Kids Museum event in Raleigh in the lead-up to the 2014 unveiling of the ABB-sponsored “Kid Grid” exhibit.

“It’s not good enough for us to engage at the university or even high school level,” Bailey said at the time. “If we don’t reach these kids by then, we’ve lost them.” By that he meant that if studying science and math wasn’t a viable choice to, say, middle schoolers—if it was already “too hard”—then it was highly unlikely those students would wind up choosing engineering or technology fields as careers later on.

Around the same time, I was visiting some of ABB’s facilities in western North Carolina where we manufacture large motors and mechanical power transmission products—all classic manufacturing. This was in the wake of the Great Recession, and most of the state was still reeling from high unemployment. So I was amazed to learn that finding qualified machinists and other manufacturing workers was a challenge for our plant managers. They’d even taken to recruiting high school graduates by reaching out to local shop teachers.

How could this be? Well, consider that even workers in their 20s have heard their whole lives that US manufacturing is dead, that there’s no career path there. Also consider this statistic offered by Stephen Ezell during this week’s panel: US investments in workforce training have declined 50% in the last decade.

Ezell suggested establishing a tax credit for investments in training, and creating skill certifications at the national level so that while job security wouldn’t be guaranteed, “skill security” would be. Which brings me to something that our CEO, Ulrich Spiesshofer, said in a discussion on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year:

“The purpose of technology is to make a better world. If we use it smartly, we will create work. The problem we have is that people don’t differentiate between jobs and work. There has never been an industrial revolution where the jobs haven’t changed. Work will always be there; the jobs are changing.”

I think this is the kernel of an idea that has yet to really take hold, at least in the US. Jobs have always evolved with the economy, and this time is no different. Instead of pining away for the “good ol’ jobs” that were dull, dirty and dangerous we should invest in our workers’ future with education and job training.

Partnerships between industry and educational institutions (notably community colleges in the US) are a good place to start. Exposing young people to manufacturing, in all of its automated modern-day glory, making it cool again, is perhaps even more important.

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About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Strategic Communications Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 120 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including smart grid technology, energy efficiency and industrial automation. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry. Currently, he is working on an introduction to power generation for the lay reader.
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