These are funny times in the manufacturing world. Though unemployment is still pretty high and many displaced manufacturing workers are unable to find work, it is still difficult to find people to fill critical manufacturing jobs. The toughest to fill are those that involve programming and industrial software.
Recently, my own company had to hire a few people for a variety of roles. We received more than 50 applications for an administrative position, a couple dozen for a mechanical position, but only a trickle of applications for the software and firmware development positions. It was very perplexing.
I can’t claim to know why this is – perhaps it’s an acute condition to my region (London, Ont.) – but I do have my theories. One is that young people interested in programming and technology today are interested specifically in game development and entertainment technology. I checked a local college’s website recently and saw that they now offer two different courses in video game design and development – one is a standard program and one comes with an internship component. In the last five years, London has become home to a cluster of video game development companies, a couple of which have landed lucrative deals. All of this lines up closely with where young people’s interests lie – video games.
I polled my son’s friends a few years ago, asking them what their desired career was. The girls listed a wide variety of careers, but almost all of the boys’ answers included the words “video game.” The motivated and industrious ones said that they wanted to be a “developer,” and the less motivated settled for wanting to simply be a “tester” of new games. I didn’t think too much of it at the time – kids will be kids – but now I see that it was more than a passing fad. Kids will be kids, but they eventually become the next generation of adults, and that’s perhaps where our current problems lie.
The fact that manufacturing is often associated with words like “blue collar” and “labour” is not a new thing. These perceptions have existed for a half a century or more. But automation technologies always had a distinct enough differentiating appeal to attract enough technology-minded students towards industrial applications. The biggest competition for their attention was accounting and business systems. But now, however, the gaming industry and the exploding personal communications industry are huge magnets attracting the majority of our technology-fascinated youth’s attention.
Correcting this condition will not be easy. It’s not a new problem, but it is a bigger challenge than it was before. As well as competing with the lustre of the growing game technology industry, the perception of our manufacturing industry’s demise only exasperates the problem.
There are some initiatives at the high school level that are worth supporting, but too many manufacturers (myself included) have failed to take the opportunity to get engaged with them.
Quite a number of high school students in my area are participating in an exciting program offered by FIRST Robotics Canada. The goal is to build a robot in six weeks from a common kit of parts provided by FIRST, and then to participate in a competition held in Waterloo, Ont. My company received an invitation to partner with one local school by allowing our engineering and technical people to mentor a group of about 30 students. This request, unfortunately, was put in the same request consideration hopper as all of the other support requests most companies typically receive. But by the time we got around to considering it, the competition was over. (To our credit, however, our company does sponsor an annual high school science fair.)
You may have heard the marketing expression that “perception is reality.” Perhaps it’s more accurately stated that “perception eventually dictates reality,” because if the perception among high school students is that manufacturing is an obsolete industry, or that manufacturing technology is boring, then that is certain to become our reality not too far in the future. As well as solving our technical skills shortages today, we need to start changing the perceptions of our industries for tomorrow.
The competition for imaginative talent is fierce. We all need to do our part to engage young minds in the exciting challenges and opportunities that exist in manufacturing technologies today. Science fairs and robotics competitions are a good start.
I’m going to make sure that I am more sensitive to these requests in the future. I encourage you to do the same. Our industry’s future lies in the minds of the next generation, so we need to make sure that they are thinking of us, too.
Paul Hogendoorn is president of OES, Inc. of London, Ont., and past chair of the London Region Manufacturing Council. He can be reached at phogendoorn@oes-inc-com.