The Myth of the Unskilled Worker

I suspect many people outside manufacturing still believe that a factory job involves unskilled labor and doesn’t require much education.

            That may have been true many years ago. But a recent presentation by Bruce Coventry, president of the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance (GEMA) for Chrysler Group, brought into sharp focus how much the situation has changed.

            GEMA is an alliance of Daimler Chrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Together, they manufacture engines to be used by all three companies.

            Coventry spoke at the recent Management Briefing Seminars sponsored by the Center for Automotive Research. In the course of his talk on “Manufacturing a World Class Work Force,” he noted that the minimum requirement for a job at a GEMA plant is a two-year technical/college degree, journeyperson status or five years machining/CNC experience.

            The result is not surprising. Coventry offered a breakdown of the background of the hourly employees actually working for GEMA. Thirty-two percent have associate degrees, 11 percent have bachelor’s degrees, 24 percent have vocational training, 20 percent have achieved journeyman status and one percent actually have master’s degrees. Only 12 percent are high school graduates with no further education.

            And that’s the hourly workers. All of the salaried employees have bachelor’s degrees, and 29 percent of them have master’s degrees.

            “GEMA is not your father’s factory,” Coventry said. “The days of competing in manufacturing with a high school diploma are getting fewer.”

            He noted that GEMA located a facility in Dundee, Michigan, rather than a low-cost southern state or foreign country, at least partly because more than 16,000 technical and associate degrees were awarded in Michigan in 2004 – two to four times as many degrees as were awarded that same year in Indiana, Mississippi or Alabama.

            But he also voiced concern that Michigan is losing many of its skilled residents as the state’s population has declined. He turned that into a plea for businesses to work with local schools and communities, offering opportunities and incentives for people to stay in Michigan.

            For its own part, Coventry said GEMA is:

  • Serving on curriculum boards at local community colleges to work on changes to the manufacturing curriculum.
  • Providing plant tours to schools and government officials to raise awareness.
  • Offering co-op and internship positions with local schools
  • Conducting educational outreach programs at elementary schools.

            I find that last point particularly fascinating, that a business is reaching down to the elementary school level to begin attracting workers.

            Despite the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. in recent years, we repeatedly hear how difficult it is for manufacturers today to find good, skilled people. Let’s hope that more government and education officials will come to understand this reality.

            And maybe GEMA and other companies that are hiring will find what they need among the ranks of Ford's employees. I hear a lot of them are going to be available soon.


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