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The Worst Career Advice?

By Marty Nemko

What could be worse advice than “Train for a career in a U.S. manufacturing plant?” After all, manufacturing careers evoke images of hot, clanging, dangerous factory floors. And you’d think that to get a job, you might have to move to Guadalajara or Shanghai. After all, for decades, manufacturing has been moving from the U.S. to low-cost countries. And the trend seems to be accelerating. Ford and GM recently announced major layoffs, and as if to rub it in, GM almost simultaneously announced that it was increasing its hiring in India by almost 30 percent.

Yes, many low-skill manufacturing jobs have been offshored, but a recent study by Deloitte Consulting for the National Association of Manufacturing Institute found that, over the next three years, 80 percent of U.S. manufacturing companies expect shortages of skilled production workers, for example, machinists, craft workers, and technicians. Sixty-five percent reported current shortages of engineers and scientists.

David Heuther, NAM’s chief economist, said, “Shortage is an understatement!” For example, Stephanie Harkness, Chairman and CEO of Pacific Plastics and Engineering, a small medical device firm in Santa Cruz, CA says she’s been unable to fill 11 skilled manufacturing positions, even though the positions have been advertised for four to six months.

But what about the “hot, clanging, and dangerous” rap? Many of today’s manufacturing jobs are far from that. Harkness says, “In just our small company, we have 24 people who work in an electronic ‘clean room’ more antiseptic than a hospital operating room.” Mike Smeltzer, Executive Director of the Manufacturer’s Association of South Central Pennsylvania is particularly enthusiastic about careers in electronic technology, and not just because the work environment is usually pleasant: “Get a two-year degree in electronic technology and you’re hirable not only in manufacturing, but even if manufacturing dips, hospitals need you to troubleshoot all their machines. That transferability should make you confident it will be worth the two years of training.”

Smeltzer is also hot on welding and metal fabrication. ‘There’s a real shortage of welders everywhere from buildings to bridges, motorcycle factories to auto repair shops.” Phyllis Eisen, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers' Institute adds, “And the average salary is, including benefits, $62,000, and welders get hired in one day, often into secure union jobs.”

I asked Smeltzer, “Would you really encourage your brother or sister to choose a career in which you have to spend your life in a protective suit and welder’s visor, piecing together parts the same way all day, every day?” Smeltzer responded, “Things have changed. Today’s welder might, for example, monitor 10 robotic welders, interpret blueprints, and troubleshoot systems.”

Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Earn More (Amacom, 2005) says that’s particularly good news for women: “Manufacturing jobs are making a transition from muscle to microchip and therefore from male-friendly to also female-friendly.”

Smeltzer, Eisen, and Harkness all agree that often the best training for manufacturing jobs is the cheapest: a local community college. Those institutions offer one-year certificate and two-year degree programs designed in concert with local manufacturers. Each of the trio has a favorite course recommendations. Smeltzer advises, “Be sure to take a business class. Many young minds are being trained to be creative, but at the expense of logical thinking. Business classes teach logic.” Harkness opines, “A course or two in quality assurance and CAD/CAM can be tickets into some of the most rewarding manufacturing jobs.” Eisen says, “While we definitely need more engineers, even just some pre-engineering courses are often enough to make you hirable. You certainly don’t need to be a programmer. Those jobs are being shipped to Asia.”

An innovative training option is a competency-based apprenticeship program, for example, that offered by the National Institute of Metalworking Skills. ( That gets you certified based on achieving key competencies, not on how many hours you spent in a classroom or apprenticeship.

Manufacturing Careers I’d Recommend to My Child

Commercial and industrial designers combine the fields of art, business, and engineering to design products from medical equipment to IPods to housewares.

Drafters prepare technical drawings used to build everything from toys to toasters, skyscrapers to spacecraft, pumps to pipelines.

Electronics engineering technicians help design, test, and manufacture equipment such as communication equipment; radar, industrial, medical monitoring devices and computers.

In a globalized economy, purchasing managers are ever more important, finding the world’s lowest cost producer of a product of the quality the company requires.

Supply Chain Logistic Managers get supplies from there to here, on time. This is especially challenging as ever more items are imported from Asia and Latin America.

Industrial Production Managers design factory floors and manufacturing processes.

Computer Controlled Machine Tool Operators and Programmers operate and program machines that make precision metal and plastic products such as furniture and car parts.

Machinists use machine tools, such as lathes and milling machines to produce precision metal parts.

Tool and die makers are among the most highly skilled manufacturing workers. They produce tools and dies that enable machines to manufacture a variety of products.

Where are the manufacturing jobs? Check out:

-- your local federally funded OneStop employment service (

-- large temp agencies such as Manpower ( ), which also provides training, and many temp-to-hire jobs

-- The Web site of your local chamber of commerce

-- Unions’ Web sites: for example,

-- Your local workforce board. To find yours:

-- Individual employers’ sites

-- Sites of state manufacturing associations. (Links to them are at

Note: Even in manufacturing, many if not most jobs are obtained via networking and cold contact, so don’t limit your job search to answering ads.

Does the shortage of skilled manufacturing workers offer hope for those downsized GM and Ford workers? Eisen sighed, “Not really. Even if they were willing to move where the jobs are—North Carolina, Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California—it’s not ‘Come on down!’ Many downsized auto workers are of the traditional mold, doing the same task, day in and day out. Today, most of those repetitive jobs are shipped to low-cost countries. Today’s factory is not your father’s factory. The new manufacturing worker has to think, know math, interpret CAD/CAM drawings, be knowledgeable about more than one process, and problem solve on a team. I’m sure some of the GM and Ford workers can do that, but as a whole, they’re not the answer to our shortage.”

Perhaps you are.

For a quick quiz that matches your skills, interests, and values to specific manufacturing-related careers, check out While it’s aimed at young adults, it’s useful for people of all ages.

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