Change Is a Group Sport: Growing Manufacturing in the US

February 24, 2011
Jessica DuLong profile photo
Jessica DuLong

Did you catch Howard Wial’s recent piece in The Atlantic? In it he outlines “four things [beyond trade policy] federal and state governments should do to encourage more U.S. manufacturing that is innovative and provides good jobs for less educated workers.”

In addition to funding advanced manufacturing centers and “expanding and modernizing” the federal-state Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, aimed at “providing U.S. manufacturing companies the training, tools and connections to accelerate innovation,” Wial calls for state and federal grants to “self-organized groups” to help manufacturerssolve problems they have in common, but which they cannot solve individually because of market failures.”

The idea that competitors in a region might come together to solve shared problems might seem a little unlikely, but business owners in South Bend, Indiana have been doing just that.

Steve Hartz says the only obstacle preventing him from doubling his manufacturing business—even in this economy—is finding skilled workers. The components made by his South Bend-based companies, Value Production and Value Tool & Engineering, Inc., have been used in the production of nearly every type of plane in the sky, from Boeing 777s to F-16s. And the contracts keep on coming. To keep up with production demands, Hartz has begun making not only parts, but workers.

All you hear about manufacturing is how it’s dying in this country, says Hartz. “But manufacturing’s not dying, we’re just dying for skilled people. The work is out there. I can go out and buy equipment any day of the week, but machines are useless without people to run them.”

As unemployment rates continue to soar, the idea that American companies are suffering from labor shortages might seem counter-intuitive. But some sectors continue to clamor for experienced help. According to a study by Manpower Inc., employers said that the third-hardest jobs to fill (behind engineers and nurses) are those in the skilled and manual trades. To meet the ongoing demand, employers are devising innovative programs to teach the next wave of workers in skilled, hands-on labor.

Frustrated that the “temporary” help-wanted sign he erected in front of his building had become a permanent fixture, Hartz decided to take matters into his own hands. He teamed up with his competitors to create a new model for training the next generation of workers: The Apprentice Academy, which he hopes will not only serve Indiana and Michigan communities, but also encourage similar projects nationwide that will help grow the domestic manufacturing base and create new jobs.

The Apprentice Academy specializes in providing training “without traditional barriers,” with courses geared toward the specific needs of local industries. Students graduate from programs in facilities and industrial maintenance, advanced manufacturing, welding, and precision metalworking, among others. These students are entering the workforce with industry-driven training provided directly by the local companies doing the hiring.

Why would Hartz choose to work with his competitors? Because, like his competition’s, Hartz’s business depends on enticing the next generation into the field. Cooperating to solve a problem that affects them all just made sense. “Right now the worker pool only has so many people in it, so if I hire somebody, my competitor loses somebody. Then when my competitor needs someone there’s a chance that I’m going to lose someone. And who does that help?” Hartz explains.

“So I sat down with my competitors and we decided to fill up the pool.”

1 Comment

  1. Chris Sorensen

    The labor shortage was severe *BEFORE* the recession. I can only imagine how much worse it will be after the recovery.