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Manufacturing and Veterans: Keys to American competitiveness

May 21, 2013

Manufacturing and Veterans: Keys to American competitiveness

Written by: James Schmeling | Managing Director and Co-Founder, Institute for Veterans and Military Families

The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF) has partnered with GE to build the Get Skills to Work initiative, and our component specifically focused on “why” and “how” business and industry can engage veteran talent. The first part is pretty straight-forward–share the demonstrated advantages veterans bring to their employers, and demand builds. “How” takes two parts–the business and industry demand side of the equation still needs talent acquisition, engagement, and retention know-how; veterans need to understand what today’s manufacturing industry offers them as an employer.

I understood the first part pretty well and the first part of the “how” as well. Working with recruiters, hiring managers, HR managers and others to build recruiting initiatives, employee resource or affinity groups and other business and talent-focused initiatives is something the IVMF does in collaboration with the 100,000 Jobs Mission and Hiring Our Heroes, as well as through its online employment platform VetNet. But a deep dive into manufacturing as an industry was new to me.

I began by reading Pisano and Shih’s Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance based on an excerpt on Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) site focused on the “industrial commons” and its importance to America and our competitiveness. For those unfamiliar with “commons,” they are essentially public resources built, shared, maintained and/or used by many people in common for their benefit and that of the community. (My first exposure to these areas related to the Internet was in a book by Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. Further reading led me to Elinor Ostrom’s work on the tragedy of the commons, and the reality that the commons are more likely sustainable than many thought, and in the context of knowledge work, I found her edited book with Hess, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, especially helpful.)

The idea that an industrial commons, built and maintained by those in local geographic areas and workforces, could (and did) dissolve when certain (previously thought unimportant) tasks and resources moved out of those geographic boundaries resonated with me. I’ve watched communities dissolve as manufacturing moved on without bringing the workforce forward with education and technology, or as manufacturers relocated operations, equipment or facilities to other places. The general thought was that low-value manufacturing could be separated from high-value knowledge work. Three themes counter to this, from Producing Prosperity, were highlighted in HBR’s excerpt:

Theme 1: When a Country Loses the Capability to Manufacture, It Loses the Ability to Innovate

Theme 2: The Industrial Commons Is a Platform for Growth

Theme 3: There Is Nothing “Natural” About Erosion of the Industrial Commons—Management and Policy Matter

It’s not clear that these factors were well understood when outsourcing began in the manufacturing sector, but it seems to be clearer now. Additionally, other factors in our global economy have impacted decisions on manufacturing; including shipping and transportation costs, labor cost changes globally and the global distribution of education and skills, as well as advances in manufacturing that require new and different skills and the ability to quickly learn new ones. Each of these factors varies over time, and right now much manufacturing is returning to the U.S.

Issues raised by the first theme above can be solved with the right balance of skills and demand. With a talented veteran workforce available to fill the 600,000 unfilled, high-skill manufacturing sector jobs currently available, manufacturers will have access to the workforce they need. Many of the nation’s veterans will also become innovators in the manufacturing sector, as engineers, production and operations experts and in other careers.

In the second theme, building those skills, workforce and innovators will rebuild an industrial commons, collaboration and coopetition, as well as intense completion, which will promote economic growth. The third theme takes management and policy work. With innovative leaders like GE, Alcoa, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, in partnership with others, we can build a manufacturing workforce with specific work skills needed to fulfill the challenges in the first two themes.

Finally, we are in a unique time in our country’s history – the combined drawdown of the military force as a result of the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will produce a ready labor force, and the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Labor have fiscal and moral incentives to convert unemployed veterans into high-skill, fully-employed veterans. The American public, likewise, has incentive to engage with veterans to return them to civilian employment, and to rebuild hubs of industry, which in turn benefits communities, states and the country. The policy environment is ripe for promoting manufacturing careers for veterans.

Right now, the U.S. has a significant source of technically-proficient veterans and transitioning service members who are seeking employment, or will be, and who do not know the manufacturing sector offers career opportunities and meaningful work. Perceptions of manufacturing in the public consciousness skew towards low-skill manufacturing, uncertain careers, outsourcing and other misperceptions that only a campaign of education will change.

As a veteran, I know that our military historically fights wars and defends our country in part for economic reasons, and yet our country was letting economic competitiveness migrate unintentionally. Manufacturing is key to American competitiveness. Combining veterans and manufacturing is a winning match between those with skills, and those who need a highly-skilled, talented workforce. Get Skills to Work is a path to matching the demand and supply. But first, veterans have to understand the possibilities to have productive and fulfilling careers in manufacturing. Tying the message to American competitiveness, as well as economic security, is one way to garner interest. Veterans repeatedly express that they want their work to have meaning, to contribute to their communities and to be personally (as well as professionally) rewarding. Manufacturing potentially fulfills these needs.

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