Three years ago I had the chance to sit down with a young man and offer him some career advice. His name was Bobby. Two years earlier, he’d been a football player at a local high school who seemed this close to winning a college scholarship; and going to college was something Bobby, a mountain of a working class kid, would probably not have been able to do without the financial relief afforded him by a full, four-year ride.
But, alas, a questionable block, an exposed knee, and a few severely torn ligaments later, Bobby suddenly found his options for what came next in life reduced considerably.
I remember Bobby had sought me out on the advice of a mutual friend, who felt the young man might possess an aptitude for skilled labor; in part because as a kid he’d always excelled at making things. I told him in my office one day how exciting and rewarding manufacturing was as a career choice. I told him too he should develop a very specific and marketable set of skills, and that he should try to be the absolute best at whatever skills, or whatever trade, he chose.
I told him as well that since automation was ramping up quickly in our sector, that whatever skill he chose, he should be aware than he will need to constantly build upon it, add to it, or maybe even ditch it altogether and change horses mid-steam, should the need arise. I told him that would be the only way he’d remain in-demand and relevant in what promises to be an ever-changing job market.
After our conversation, my friend told me Bobby decided to go to trade school to learn to become a welder. Only the young man didn’t just become a welder. He became an almost freakishly good welder; so good, in fact, that his teachers who initially thought he must have some kind of training before enrolling, eventually asked him to start teaching a class or two at the school, which he now does as a sideline.
So the young man now not only has one job. He has two, with options for even greater career growth opportunities suddenly there for the picking.
Since that day in my office a few years ago, the increased demand for high-level factory skills and the diminishing reliance on low-skill, repetitive manual labor has only heightened. In fact, robotics and automation and have become such important considerations in today’s job market, that the Atlantic recently ran a cover story around a scenario in which some 6 million American jobs could be lost across multiple sectors to automation in the not-too-distant future.
In one sense, the solution is not an easy one. No one knows where technology or the future is headed; certainly not those workers with limited job skills. And even those barons of industry at the very top of the food chain must be debating what such a stunning job loss would do to the overall strength of the economy.
But in another sense, the answer is easy. If you’re a shop worker, broaden and deepen your skill sets. And do it now. Go back to school, even on spec. Turn yourself into a lifelong learner. And try as hard as possible to hone to an even greater degree the job skills you may currently possess.
Remember, there will always be a market for hard workers with in-demand skills. The question is, tomorrow what will those skills be? And the more skills one has, the more likely one (or more) of those skills will remain valuable to those in the industrial sector, large and small.
The era, alas, when landing a job in manufacturing and keeping it for decades is gradually becoming an endangered species. Technology alone is altering almost daily the landscape in which we work, if not the very nature of our business. And today’s prince may well become tomorrow pauper without the ability to keep one eye on the task at hand and one eye squarely on the horizon.
And that goes for both those on the shop floor and those in all those corner offices across this industrial landscape of ours.
If you don’t believe me, take a lesson from a young man who’s living the reality. Talk to a kid named Bobby.