May 15, 2014

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Manufacturing Industry Leaders Discuss Perception, Image Challenges

By Rachel Madison

May 15, 2014

A group of manufacturing experts joined together Wednesday during Utah Business’ annual Manufacturing Roundtable to discuss trends and challenges their industry is currently seeing. One of the major challenges the industry is facing is stamping out the stigma that manufacturing is just blue bib overalls and smoke stacks. In fact, most participants agreed that manufacturing is the complete opposite of that image.

Todd Bingham, president and CEO of the Utah Manufacturers Association, said an unsavory image is a very challenging issue for manufacturing as an industry, primarily because it has a huge impact on workforce. He said one of the problems is that manufacturing companies all brand their companies and products, but they haven’t yet branded their industry.

“We can’t fill the pipeline with skilled workers because today’s youth don’t see manufacturing as a sexy industry,” he said. “There are three industries that create new wealth: agriculture, mining and manufacturing. All of them have much of the same image challenge. Today’s younger generation is leaving the industry to go to work for another industry because they don’t see it as high tech. They have a very limited understanding of what manufacturing is.”

Scott Bruce, director of technical services for Rio Tinto/Kennecott, said parents also need to get on board with changing the manufacturing industry’s image.

“They are influential in these young people’s decisions,” he said. “They’re the ones who hold that we’re not innovative. They hold that very strongly because they weren’t targeted [for manufacturing jobs when they were young] so they don’t understand. Parents don’t believe that we hold exciting jobs.”

Wim de Jager, vice president of manufacturing for Black Diamond, said he’s noticed manufacturing in Utah is hidden away.

“You go outside and you see banks and other flashy buildings,” he said. “But if you go to Germany and drive to the industrial parks, you can see fantastic, beautiful manufacturing facilities with glass windows where you can look through and see the robotics and what’s going on. Manufacturing there has a higher status than what it has here.”

Ragula Bhaskar, CEO of Fatpipe Networks, said it’s no secret that very few people tell their children to go work in the mines as a coal mine engineer, mainly because parents want cleaner, easier jobs for their kids. He said the industry should be focusing on high school counselors, who can give more information to students about the good jobs they can get after learning more about companies and touring their plants.

Fred Lampropoulos, CEO of Merit Medical Systems, said when high school students or scouting groups tour his facility, they immediately become interested in the world of manufacturing. His vision includes creating a type of “manufacturing museum” where high school students could go to see manufacturing processes being done first hand.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a location where we set up a manufacturing facility for high school students?” he said. “Then kids could come and see it, because they do want to know what this manufacturing thing is all about. We need to do something different and innovative. It goes beyond the individual [companies]. I realize this commitment would take tens of millions of dollars, but we need to step up to the plate. There’s something bigger we can do.”

Kelle Stephens, president of Dixie Applied Technology College, said the DXATC recently had a group of manufacturers come to them and say they needed help with finding more skilled workers. That’s why in August, the DXATC is launching a program called A.M. STEM, which will be an early morning, five-day-a-week advanced manufacturing training course for high school seniors. They will learn how to make, fix and automate things during the school year and will then apply their skills by working paid jobs with different manufacturing companies the following summer while also completing a one-day-a-week leadership course at the DXATC.

“You guys are competing against the healthcare industry, against the IT industry,” said Mike Bouwhuis, president of Davis Applied Technology College. “Kids see [those industries] all the time, so you’ve got to make your industry more visible and more exciting. We’ll win the battle if we do that.”

Vince Mikolay, managing director of business outreach and international trade for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, moderated the discussion. The Manufacturing Roundtable will appear in the July issue of Utah Business magazine.

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