October 25, 2021


My Different Path

I currently work as a dean at a small university and am the founder and owner of a consulting company. I started my work career as a part-time farmhand during high school earning $2.00 an hour. Upon graduation, I was already married and needed to make more money. So I accepted a position as a machine laborer – a nasty job on second shift cleaning machines. Certainly not a desirable long-term option. Thankfully that less-than-ideal work led to many excellent career options.

Those Early Years

More than 40 years ago, that machine laborer job was at F.P. Miller in Jackson, Michigan. I spent eight-hour shifts cleaning machines in an enclosed booth. I would spray down the filthy equipment with oleum, a concentrated sulfuric acid containing excess sulfur trioxide in a dense and corrosive liquid solution. As you can imagine, this was not a job I enjoyed, so when I was offered a position as a machine repair apprentice, I quickly accepted that opportunity. I still remember one of my coworkers saying that he was not interested as it meant a pay cut. However, we had that money back in six months, and my pay kept increasing from that point for the apprenticeship’s balance. I occasionally wonder how his career turned out.

If everybody else seems to be doing it one way, there might be more opportunity the other way.
Andrew Scheuermann

Why Only College?

It seems that most young people plan to go to college after high school. However, some choose a path to learn a trade. Ultimately I followed a third option of working initially in skilled trades in manufacturing by day and attending college nights and weekends. While it might not be the most desirable option, a significant benefit was that the companies I worked for had tuition reimbursement. As a result, the only debt I incurred of probably $70–80,000 of tuition expense was a small amount after transitioning out of the industry. The earned credentials included a Certificate in Machine Repair, an Associate of Science in Mechanical Engineering Technology, a Bachelor of Business Administration, a Master of Business Administration, and a Doctor of Business Administration. One constraint was that it needed to be a work-related degree, but that was not an issue, given my desired career path.

Many Years Later

I continue to use the skills I learned in the craft of machine repair and rebuild. Attention to detail was critical as missing a needed replacement part could significantly delay the return of the customer’s machine. I learned how to find the actual root cause of a downed machine so that I could quickly get it back into production and fully operational. An ability to rapidly get up to speed on a new situation was also crucial as I seldom worked on the same type of equipment in the exact location. Repeated machine rebuild cycles honed my project management skills. In addition to the day-to-day work, I was also taking apprenticeship courses. If it worked well for me, one might ask why others do not follow a similar path.

Image Credit: Daniel Smyth from Pexels

Creating Positive Perceptions of the Manufacturing Industry

A study by Deloitte, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Manufacturing Institute found that 8 in 10 Americans see manufacturing as vital to the future of the United States (US). Ranking third on the list, manufacturing is essential in creating new jobs and maintaining a robust national economy. For Americans familiar with the sector, Gen Xers and their parents saw it as the most preferred US job-creation engine. Those in the public without industry experience responded at 64% that manufacturing was high-tech and 55% globally competitive. Only 3 of 10 Americans without industry knowledge would encourage their children to work in this industry. However, the number doubled for those with industry knowledge. The public perception is that US manufacturing will grow stronger, require higher technical skills (88%), provide a cleaner and safer setting (81%), and expand industry awareness.

Good Pay and Job Security

Additional study results showed that the industry has the lowest turnover rates at 2.3%, the highest private-sector wage average of $81,289, and 9.7 years as the highest worker tenure. Hands-on programs to include apprenticeships, internships, and certification programs found traction with 6 out of 10 respondents in creating awareness and interest in manufacturing. Ninety percent of Americans recommended that manufacturers raise awareness of the high pay and healthy job benefits. More than 75% recommended a strategic approach investment in developing the manufacturing base. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans see a need for a national priority that the government should support through tax incentives. To enhance US manufacturing competitiveness, the work should decrease healthcare costs, offer a comprehensive energy policy, and support education systems reform.

Other Career Options

Not all industries will pay for employees to earn a degree, or an individual may want to follow a career path the company would not support. An example is a young woman working at a plant I managed, wishing to become a nurse. She worked as a line leader on the second shift, allowing her to do the nursing training during the day. We also assigned her to a line that did not typically require her to work overtime. The benefit of performing a manufacturing job was that it paid an hourly wage that was at least double that of many service industry jobs. For this employee, manufacturing work was not an ideal long-term option, but it did a lot to help defray tuition costs.

Key Takeaway

My path was not trades or college. It has been a third option of an intersection of both. I began working in the trades that taught me lessons I still use today. My employers paid for more than ninety percent of the cost of a certificate and four degrees. I did miss out on the experiences of a typical full-time residential student. However, the trade-off of almost zero student debt was a financially beneficial, worthwhile alternative for me, one that I do not regret.

My Gratitude

I am grateful to the geometry professor during my apprenticeship courses. He sparked something in me that took a farm kid with zero interest in pursuing a college degree to a career in higher education. Sadly, I do not remember his name to give him proper credit. Yet, it is important to know that we impact others in many unknown beneficial ways.

Sneak Peek

Next week, the blog topic will continue with the shift to expand the employment pool for the manufacturing sector.

To learn more about our work or to read more blog posts, visit emmanuelstrategicsustainability.com.

Cover Image Credit: Pavlofox from Pixabay

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