Dark, dingy, dangerous and dead-end are all words to describe what some people visualize when they think of working in a machine shop or job shop. But changing those perceptions is Terry Iverson’s No. 1 goal, which he aims to do with his new book, Finding America’s Greatest Champion: Building Prosperity through Manufacturing, Mentoring and the Awesome Responsibility of Parenting.
The book examines ways to change how people view manufacturing and American-made products and to learn to appreciate the value of a career in the trades. The emphasis is on the need for the next generation to join and strengthen America’s manufacturing industry and to illustrate what opportunities are available to today’s youth.
Iverson is president and CEO of Iverson & Co., a machine tool distributor and rebuilder in Des Plaines, Ill. He is also the founder of Champion Now, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that introduces young people to manufacturing careers by changing their perceptions, engaging them in internships and inspiring them with videos and presentations.
In preparation for the book, Iverson interviewed more than 40 professionals, including corporate leaders, athletes, politicians, manufacturers, educators and parents. They provided their thoughts on topics such as mentorship, parenting and the importance of manufacturing in the United States.
The impetus for the book was Iverson’s concern about manufacturing in America. “It’s well documented that manufacturing is at the core of most nations and is the basis of the middle class,” he begins. “So the thought of a country as great as ours not recognizing the importance of manufacturing worries me as a parent and citizen and also an employer.
“There was a time when this country was saying we’re going to be a service-based economy,” he continues. “Those are dangerous words for a manufacturing behemoth like the United States. Also, a lot of manufacturers went overseas so there was this panic that everything was going to go overseas. This was not the case, of course. There are still plenty of manufacturing needs and plenty of manufacturing jobs in this country.”
The top priority
The biggest issue facing manufacturing today is the lack of skilled workers. The reshoring effort is adding to the need for workers, as is the retirement of older workers. A growing economy exacerbates the situation.
Iverson has 38 years of experience in the machine tool distribution world, and “with each passing year, my customers have grown louder and louder about their need for more skilled people.”
Several reasons exist for the lack of skilled workers, starting with the culture in America and the negative views of careers in manufacturing. “We need to get back to honoring and accepting those that learn differently and have skills that aren’t suited to a traditional form of education,” Iverson says.
High school graduates are encouraged to go the university or college route because it’s seen as the only way to make a decent living. But the other side of that coin is too many students choose degrees with little job opportunities and are then saddled with large debts as they begin their careers.
On the employer side, apprenticeships and training opportunities in the United States have been lacking. Too many companies have neglected the idea of training the future workforce, looking only for short-term gains. Mentoring young people and investing in their future is important, even if it requires more time and resources.
“In Europe, those countries are very accepting of tradesmen and apprenticeships,” Iverson says. “Those countries have never lost that tradition. Apprenticeships in the United States have gone away.”
Looking for answers
Finding solutions to the skills gap is complicated because of the many variables involved. Industry needs to take a more active role in educating and informing the public about the realities of manufacturing. Educators need to be educated about the many career options available in manufacturing.
“I’m also a big advocate of mentoring and parenting as being a way to change the culture and educate and advise young people about their opportunities,” Iverson says.
While automation can be viewed as a part of the solution to the skills gap, it still requires skilled workers. Automation and technology in manufacturing are essential to increase production and compete on a global basis. However, it’s important to remember that they are not taking away more jobs than they are creating.
“Automation creates different jobs for programmers and operators to keep the automation running, and the required skill set is even higher,” Iverson says. “It is essential that the skills of the people involved in the production processes continue to evolve with the pace of technology and innovation.”
The skills gap issue is not a new development and there are already many programs and opportunities offered through industry and education trying to address the problem. A number of manufacturing and design engineering classes are being implemented in high schools, and colleges are offering more manufacturing focused courses, too. Iverson believes it is making an impact.
“Also, programs such as Project Lead the Way, which is project-based learning, are becoming more common,” Iverson says. “There is a movement about learning in a relevant manner so you can apply math and science concepts to make a product. That makes it relevant to the young person. There is this problem-solving element, which is a value add in the workforce.”
Another program Iverson touts is Manufacturing Day, which is in its seventh year. “Manufacturers open their doors to show the reality of today’s manufacturing. Events like that are highly efficient because they are visual.”
Be a champion
Iverson’s own ChampionNow – an acronym that stands for Change how American manufacturing’s perceived in our nation – is also aimed at changing perceptions about manufacturing. “We want to be a manufacturing marketing element,” Iverson says. “That is where the book comes in. Before the book, I was limited – there are only so many schools I can visit. The book gets the message out much better and more broadly.”
Like most, Iverson is hopeful about the future of manufacturing in the United States. “The manufacturing economy is prospering,” he says. “The door has swung open, but we need to take advantage of the opportunity and have a long, steady approach that can sustain the highs and lows of the manufacturing business. But at the core, if we don’t have the workforce, we can’t sustain it.”
Having that workforce requires young people to be exposed to all opportunities, which includes careers in manufacturing as well as engineering. “I just want to enlighten people as to what the reality is,” he says. “It’s OK for someone to say that’s not for me after they have all the information. But there are so many young people and parents that don’t even know. They are not aware of the options in the vibrant manufacturing industry.”