Ensuring the Future of Manufacturing: An Op-Ed by Rich Stinson

May 30, 2017

As seen in the Atlanta Business Chronicle – Publication Date – May 26, 2017

American manufacturers are facing a crisis: the skilled-trade shortage. We must transform our thinking by focusing on future generations to bridge the gap.

At Southwire, our goal is to grow 50 percent in five years, which is no small task. Growth, both in our current, core business and our areas of outlook for the future, requires skill and talent — specifically the right, properly trained skill and talent. The intersection of our corporate goals and the skilled-trade shortage is challenging for our Georgia-based company, which is the largest wire and cable manufacturer in North America.

Consider the facts:

  • Between 1997 and 2016, the number of manufacturing jobs in Georgia dropped from 554,400 to 388,200, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. For both Georgia and the nation, manufacturing jobs are down around 30 percent from their peak in the late nineties.
  • The number of manufacturing establishments in Georgia dropped from 10,002 in 2007 to 9,665 in 2015, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
  • And Southwire locations outside of Georgia mirror these state and national trends.

Manufacturing, however, is of vital importance to Georgia. According to the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, in a piece that recently ran in these pages, manufacturing contributes greater than $52 billion to the state’s economy, accounts for 11 percent of the state’s GDP and creates wealth for hundreds of communities across the state.

While the trend in manufacturing jobs has been negative for nearly two decades, we are seeing a small rebound that we hope is a sign of a larger recovery. To reinforce and expand this comeback, it is important to understand why the big decline happened. A few issues are key.

First, the baby boomer generation is and will be retiring. Many of these workers have been integral to our operations, our customers and other companies like ours for decades.

Second, and more broadly, surveys of the U.S. population show a general disinterest, or unfavorable stigma, toward jobs in the manufacturing industry. For instance, a group of people age 19-33 were asked by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, “If you were beginning your career today, what would be your industry preference?”

Out of seven industries, manufacturing was listed at the very bottom. In another survey, only 37 percent of parents acknowledged that they would encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing, though 90 percent believe that the success of manufacturing is essential to economic prosperity.

Third, training and apprenticeship programs aren’t receiving the level of support they need from the industry. In Deloitte’s survey, less than half of the respondents believe that the U.S. manufacturing industry has well-educated and highly skilled individuals.

So, for a manufacturing company looking at rapid growth with a glaring gap in skilled talent, the cards aren’t stacked in our favor. We must create opportunities to break the stigma, and they begin with education.

Southwire made a commitment long ago to require our employees to have a high school diploma. That sounds simple, but in the early 2000s the graduation rate in our largest area of operations was around 66 percent. Our labor pool was shrinking, and there were social and economic challenges in the community.

We went to the school system and asked how we could help. Rather than offering a monetary donation, we wanted to support a real transformation in our community. Our executive team began to develop ideas toward a collaboration.

These ideas paved the way for 12 for Life, a partnership with the local school system, inspiring at-risk students to earn wages by working in a Southwire manufacturing facility while completing high school. The program has graduated and changed the lives of more than 2,000 students, some of whom continue to work at Southwire and some who have gone on to pursue collegiate education, military service or other occupations. In that same time, the county’s graduation rates have improved to above the national average, which is now around 86 percent, helping us sustain a larger potential workforce in the community.

12 for Life brings awareness of career possibilities in manufacturing to our youth, while training and educating them for the future. And it is not the only way we are working to meet the growing need for talent. Our company invests in national apprenticeship programs, supporting them with time, resources and dollars to encourage further education in skilled trades. We’ve also developed our own maintenance apprenticeship program, working with technical education institutions to apply industry standards to a training and educational curriculum for Southwire apprentices that will lead to potential placement in jobs as senior millwrights and senior electronic technicians as well as other skilled-trade positions.

Last, but maybe most important, we are taking a thoughtful look at our approach to inclusivity. As the face of America changes in age, ethnic background and diversity of thought, we must ensure we value and meet the needs of all our employees. If we are going to recruit skilled talent and expand on our markets, we must provide opportunities for all employees to engage and contribute at their highest potential.

We are hopeful the recent shift in the larger manufacturing jobs trend is not just an outlier. Georgia Department of Labor statistics show that from January 2016 to January 2017, manufacturing jobs in Georgia increased to 392,000 — a growth rate of 1.8 percent. 392,000 jobs is a long way from the half million jobs in this sector in the late ‘90s, but it is a change in the right direction, and one we are committed to help improve.

If Georgia’s manufacturing industry can focus on a new way of thinking, we can build upon these recent gains, bridge the gap and propel ourselves to bigger and brighter achievements.

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