Pitching manufacturing careers a challenge amid slump

February 2, 2009

 It's hard to imagine a more discouraging environment to lure high school students into manufacturing work.

The uncertain future of Detroit automakers casts a pall over thousands of workers in central Indiana. Companies of all sorts, from hospital equipment maker Hill-Rom Inc. to office supplies maker Deflect-O Corp., are shedding workers left and right. From December 2007 through December 2008, Indiana lost 46,000 manufacturing jobs, or 8.4 percent.

Yet, the message that Steve Dwyer, recently retired chief operating officer of Rolls-Royce North America, will take to central Indiana educators is that they still need to train students for careers in manufacturing.

"There's going to be demand for manufacturing. That doesn't go away," Dwyer said. "The manufacturing is going to go where people are most skilled."

Dwyer is chairman of a $1.2 million initiative called "Dream It. Do It." launched by Conexus, a division of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership. Conexus is using a $500,000 grant from the Department of Workforce Development, plus $700,000 in private donations, to try to raise the number of high school students in pre-engineering or manufacturing-trade courses over five years.

The effort has its roots in the more promising business climate of 2006, when Cummins Inc., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. all announced they would bring new jobs to Indiana.

The state's commitment to work-force training is what tipped Cummins in favor of Columbus, where it already has 5,500 workers. Adding a line of fuel-efficient diesel engines could bring 600 more jobs to the southern Indiana city.

Other states offered bigger tax incentives, but company spokesman Mark Land said Cummins was more interested in building "a world-class work force that will be able to serve us, and others, down the road."

The "Dream It. Do It." Initiative was launched in 2007 in southeastern Indiana. So far, the focus has been on introducing middle and high school students to a nationally recognized pre-engineering curriculum, developed by Purdue University, called Project Lead the Way.

Chairman John Burnett said educators embraced the idea of exposing more students to engineering and math. What might be more difficult, he said, is convincing high school students to invest effort into the same four-part certification course a laid-off auto worker would find at Ivy Tech Community College.

The course was created by the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council, and the Indiana State Board of Education approved teaching it in high schools in 2007. Few have taken up the MSSC certificate so far.

"Students are going to need to know that if they receive this certification, that employers are going to honor it," Burnett said.

He said his group is trying to get local manufacturers, including Cummins, to guarantee interviews, or some other incentive, to students earning the certificate.

Closer to Indianapolis, the McKenzie Career Center in Lawrence Township is already selling kids on manufacturing, Assistant Director Frank Svarczkopf said. The Project Lead the Way curriculum has been in use for seven years, and manufacturing is one of several career-oriented components students may choose to explore.

"They start seeing the dollars and the competition, and how fun it can be to work with a robot in a manufacturing setting," Svarczkopf said. "We get some interest."

Long-term decline

Even after manufacturers recover from the current economic turmoil, jobs aren't expected to be plentiful in the short term.

"We'll get a little bit of a rebound coming out of the recession, but not much," said Mike Helmar, director of industry services at economic analysis provider Moody's Economy. com.

The firm predicts the job market will improve 3 percent from 2010 through 2013. Then it will resume the long-term downward trend that began in 1969.

"Our forecast goes out through 2038," Helmar said. "We've got it gradually declining the whole time out there." But productivity will grow. "We have [productivity] continuing to expand because output per employee becomes greater with efficiency gains " Helmar said.

Indiana has seen the same trend—downward employment with upward productivity. That's why manufacturing still accounts for a large portion of the state's GDP—$70 billion, or 28 percent, in 2006.

Part of that wealth has gone to relatively high wages for people lacking college degrees. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, found that, in 2006-2007, Hoosiers without four-year degrees who worked in manufacturing earned an average $16.77 an hour, compared with $14.80 in other fields.

Burnett, a human resources expert who is the "Dream It. Do It." leader in Columbus, thinks manufacturing will continue to provide middle-class jobs.

"As productivity increases, the positions available to people are going to require higher levels of skill and higher levels of pay," he said.

And he said those jobs aren't necessarily dirty, or repetitive. "Manufacturing includes things like embedded systems, on-board diagnostics, software systems, controls engineers."

The buzzword educators and students will likely hear from Conexus is "advanced" manufacturing.

"How do you take someone who's used to running a machine and teach them to program and troubleshoot that machine?" Dwyer asked. "That's advanced manufacturing."

Economic development consultant Graham Toft noted that several Midwest states have initiatives that promote "advanced" manufacturing, which can refer to the making of high-tech products or innovative processes that take their cues from the Japanese automakers.

"It's a bit like biotech—everybody's got one," he said.

Indiana is still far from complete renewal of the manufacturing landscape that auto-parts makers have dominated for decades, but Toft said it's a vital effort.

"Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Denmark, they take their manufacturing economy very seriously," he said. "It creates wealth. It's hard to grow economically unless you have a healthy component of manufacturing. It may not be a large component, but it has to be a prosperous component."

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