Leland Teschler's Editorial: What is a factory?

Nov. 8, 2007
Most Machine Design readers could give a detailed explanation of what goes on in a typical manufacturing plant. But here is how a kid might describe a factory:

It is a big ugly building surrounded by a wide berm and a barbed-wire fence. It has small windows, and security guards at all the doors to keep people out.

With that image in mind, is it any wonder that most young people don’t aspire to careers in such hostile-looking facilities?

This observation comes from Keith Campbell, director of Pennsylvania’s Industrial Maintenance Training Center. The IMTC is a cooperative effort between industry and government aimed at getting more trained employees for the state’s industrial firms. Campbell is finding out just what kind of obstacles he must overcome to fill the pipeline with promising job candidates. Manufacturing’s perception problems among the nation’s youth have been widely chronicled, so you would think Campbell could find a lot of companies eager to put on a good face for potential new hires in secondary schools. He floated the concept of opening plants and giving tours so school kids could see what went on inside factory walls.

The idea went nowhere. “The answer among manufacturers was pretty much no,” says Campbell. A variety of issues, among them the legal liabilities involved, conspired to thwart him.

But a bad image isn’t the only problem Campbell faces. Compensation for trained technicians, field service engineers, and maintenance personnel hasn’t kept pace with what’s available in other areas of the economy. “Right now, people hauling the goods around in trucks can make about as much as knowledge workers who produce the goods being hauled,” he says.

Campbell made these comments at the recent Pack Expo show, considered the premier venue for manufacturers of packaging equipment. If opinions expressed there are any indication, compensation and a poor image aren’t the only problems facing manufacturers. Another is that workers who do find industrial jobs just aren’t being trained to hit the ground running.

Contrast the situation in the U.S. with that of Germany. German manufacturers have no trouble finding candidates for factory work. And, contends Elau Inc.’s John Kowal, German maintenance technicians get an education that is more directly useful on the factory floor than that of degreed engineers in the U.S. “American engineers never even see a PLC or a motion controller in school,” he says. Kowal should know: He works for a company that has a German parent.

Automation technicians in Germany study for four years while spending half their time on practical factory work. The best of these candidates compete to become what’s called a mechatronic technician, a position that is well recognized in the German manufacturing industry and which holds a certain amount of prestige.

Prestige is a foreign concept to U.S. workers engaged in industrial work. It is one of the fronts that will have to be overhauled if factories are to ever be more than big ugly buildings to the next generation of U.S. high-school graduates.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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