It's Not a Sin to Get Your Hands Dirty

A healthy U.S. manufacturing economy requires hands-on expertise and technical skills. Unfortunately, much of the country still isn’t interested.
David Cole, author of this article, is chairman emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research.

One of the great challenges facing our economy is the availability of an appropriately educated and skilled workforce. In a 2012 Wall Street Journal article about Fort Wayne, IN, we saw a snapshot of a broader national issue: the shortage of talent in manufacturing regions. In Fort Wayne, they have high unemployment and a large number of job openings, suggesting a mismatch between the needs and available skills. In fact, one of the most severe shortages is for skilled trades and technicians, skills that are taught in a local community college. The community college in Fort Wayne was using only about 70% of its capacity to educate young people in these disciplines, the article said.

In Michigan, at a recent Summit on Jobs organized by the Governor, the number one shortage of talent was skilled trades and technicians. In second place were engineers with mechanical/electrical abilities. One important fact about both of these is that you have to “get your hands dirty.” That it doesn’t necessarily mean getting oil and grime on your hands and clothes, but it does mean you must have a deep understanding of how things work in the real world of manufacturing.

Knowledge is one thing we all believe is important, but that’s only a start. The application of that knowledge is what creates value. I saw this first hand when I was growing up in Detroit. I was educated in the public schools and had “hands-on” courses like metal, machine and wood shop and drafting, as well as the traditional academic courses of math, science and English. Following that I earned four degrees from the University of Michigan, culminating in a PhD in mechanical engineering. During my early years I was fortunate to have spent summers on my grandparent’s/uncle’s farm in West Michigan from about age 5 to 19. Early on it was more of a vacation, but it later turned into a working summer. One thing I learned very early is that farming is a hands-on profession. When something broke on the farm, you didn’t run to the city to buy whatever broke. You fixed it and got back to business. It was a wonderful learning experience for me.

For some reason today, we have moved away from the idea that “getting your hands dirty” is a good thing. Many young people and their parents envision a job on Wall Street, or in some other “clean” profession. But the needs are greater in one of the most important parts of our economy: manufacturing. Using the auto industry as an example, an auto manufacturer today has an economic multiplier of about 10 – that is, for every job at an auto company like Ford, GM, or Toyota there are nine other jobs tied to it in suppliers or in “spin-off” jobs, such as grocery stores and restaurants. That really “cool” Wall Street job has a multiplier of about two, suggesting that our economy would be in tough shape if all we had

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