At last month’s Plant Success conference in Wilmington, Delaware, one of the main topics was talent management for manufacturing companies -- in other words how to find, train, and keep good employees that contribute to the bottom line. Several speakers expressed concern that recent college graduates are simply not interested in what they see as old-school manufacturing jobs, despite the fact that many of these jobs are anything but old-school these days and require significant knowledge and skill.
Why should I have been surprised, then, when my recently graduated, science major son refused to consider even applying for jobs listed by several chemical companies? Not only did he refuse, he said his significantly left-of-center alma mater would likely revoke his diploma if he took a job with these companies. I trust that he jests. But then I remembered the gowned students waiting in line at commencement last May. A faculty member was walking the line offering students green badges to pin on their gowns indicating their commitment to work only for “green” companies. At least three fourths of the graduates walked off the stage with these badges. My son was not one of them, but the prevailing attitude rubbed off on him nonetheless.
What can we do about this as an industry? What can I do about this as a parent who would love to have a son gainfully and happily employed in a technical discipline?
On my side, I gently pointed out that far from having caused an oil spill or lethal gas leak, one of the chemical companies hiring actually made chemicals used to clean up the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. You can’t get much greener than that. As his job and graduate school search continues, I take every opportunity to point out that the companies I work with do some amazingly innovative and environmentally friendly things, like developing probiotics for animal feed that decrease the use of antibiotics, like developing dry lubricants that can replace (think “conserve”) water in water-intensive manufacturing processes, like developing paints that don’t release toxic fumes.
On the industry side, the chemical industry might benefit from the example of the high tech industry, which, despite its sexier reputation, also has difficulty finding college graduates with the right skills. The University of Oregon’s Master’s Industrial Internship Program is a partnership between industry sponsors (including a couple of chemical manufacturers) in which industry helps design the curriculum and fund the labs in exchange for getting a steady stream of smart young interns who not only want to work for them, but have the required skills. We need more programs like this, and perhaps we need them at the undergraduate level --- maybe even in high school. It is initiatives like this that have the potential to solve the talent management problems for manufacturing industries with image problems and aging workforces.