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Silicon Valley Has Nothing on Manufacturing

Thu, 04/11/2013 - 3:32pm
David Mantey, Executive Editor, PD&D

David Mantey, Executive Editor, PD&D, in a tie.Manufacturing floors don’t have Lego stations and pool tables – and yes, OSHA may take issue with throwing empty cans from the mini bar into the same bin as the scrap metal from the lathe, but that doesn’t mean that the industry has any fewer engineers flocking to it.

In the column Legos on the Plant Floor?, Joel Hans, managing editor of Manufacturing.net wrote about the pipe dream painted by Silicon Valley. Similar to previous generations aspiring for a slice of the American Dream, the Valley has promoted enough perks to make work fun — and keep employees around longer than the traditional 40 hours. At least they don’t have to install human nets around the campuses, yet, and maybe it goes beyond the perks; maybe the entire workplace dynamic is evolving.

When I started out as a writer (actually, I started in education, but that was a notable flameout (turns out, you can’t encourage kids to cheat)), I had one rule for myself: It didn’t matter what the job was, as long as I was writing, I would be happy – or at least content, as I would later find.

In my graduating class of aspiring writers (future journalists, novelists, silver-spoon slackers, car salesmen, et al.), we knew that we all were shooting for a handful of jobs available on the market, and even fewer dream jobs. At the time, it was the New York Times, Playboy, Wired, any local newspaper that was a year or two from collapse, and a few dreamers who held much too tightly to the fact that good writing launched the careers of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Every profession has the dream job that lures the impressionable pool into a given field. While Silicon Valley may be drawing a larger group of applicants than it has room for, the denied applicants will find that life as an engineer in a manufacturing facility isn’t all that bad.

I spent three years, summer and winter break, anyways, working with a combination injection molding company and mold builder. While the in-house engineers may not have been the most exciting crew for chit chat, they enjoyed their jobs, worked reasonable hours, supported their families, and designed products that likely gave back to the world more than a social network or (arguably) a search engine – life goes on without search engines, but life without modern dentistry is a paralyzing proposition.

The shop perks may have ended after a handful of reasonably-priced vending machines, but it’s not like a lack of Legos led the company’s brain trust to greater, tetravalent metalloid pastures. And I’d argue that some manufacturing firms have taken a page from the Valley, or at least the Japanese, and offer perks like in-house gym equipment and childcare services. It’s few and far between, but it’s not like you’re clocking in at a mine each morning.

Apple is building an orchard, Facebook is adding a BBQ shack, a sushi house, and a bike shop, and Google has ping pong tables, arcades, and the aforementioned Lego stations. Personally, I prefer vegetables, I only bear the BBQ mess in front of trusted friends and loved ones, and I never really cared for Legos – I started before it was age appropriate, and a choking incident occurred.

From Legos on the Plant Floor?:

“For the most part, [Silicon Valley] engineers aren’t the kind of people who would otherwise work in manufacturing, so their constant migration to the Bay Area isn’t particularly troubling to our industry. But there must have been some who, at least in passing, must have considered working in manufacturing. And maybe, in comparing the benefits of working on a plant floor against the benefits of working at Facebook, they chose the latter.”

On the contrary, I believe the opposite to be true. As a result of the traditional negative stigma that casts a shadow over jobs within the manufacturing industry, some individuals may stray from the profession all together if it wasn’t for the light at the end of the valley. Better dream job prospects will only yield a greater pool of qualified applicants – and when they realize that they can’t all land on the west coast, it’s not as if they’ll walk away from the profession with crushing student debt hanging over their heads if they can’t order sushi from an in-house chef.

If anything, many will find greater purpose in positions they were otherwise ignorant of until the student debt collection agencies came a calling. (Winking at you, trade publishing.)

More eyes on the industry, and more engineers in the field? Doesn’t sound like too big of a problem to me.

What was your dream job when you started in the industry? Comment below or email me at david.mantey@advantagemedia.com.

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