Pamela Kan

The manufacturing firm which I run, founded by my father, has been going strong for 65 years. For me, this isn’t just a business or a job, it’s personal.

During the recent election season, we heard many a politician and pundit either extolling the virtues of U.S. manufacturing or waxing nostalgic about how that part of our economy is from some bygone era. Like all things, the reality is far more nuanced than what fits neatly into a tweet or a sound bite. U.S. manufacturing is quite strong with solid indications of future growth.

But ironically, that’s the problem. U.S. labor statistics project we will be short some two million manufacturing workers in the next 10 years.

Worrying about how we continue to build our team is already what keeps me and every other U.S. manufacturer up at night. Here’s just one example. We had tons of business coming in and tight deadlines to meet, but that master machinist position we had begun recruiting for months earlier sat vacant and did so for almost a year. We were endlessly scrambling to cover the scheduling gap. Now that we have that new member of the team, it will only be a matter of time before the next seasoned veteran begins to consider retirement.

Why is U.S. production so short of these skilled workers?

I think it comes down to messaging. It sends the right message when manufacturers connect with communities through classroom presentations and factory tours, maker fairs, and by encouraging all kids to explore hands-on STEM curricula. It sends the wrong message when the cover of Girl’s Life pushes fashion & beauty and Boy’s Life highlights future careers. It also sends the wrong message when talking heads suggest all skilled workers will someday be replaced by automation. In fact, production teams are ever more dependent on one another to contribute their ideas and expertise to running high tech operations.

For me and my team, manufacturing is very personal, and if we take the time and effort to connect with our communities, future generations will be more apt to say the same.

With a Perspective, this is Pamela Kan.

Pamela Kan is president of an East Bay manufacturing company who promotes STEM education and high tech careers in manufacturing.

  • Hillary Clintub

    What does your company manufacture, Pamela?

    • P Kan

      Hi Hillary. Bishop Wisecarver is a group of three business units all focused primarily around industrial automation – Linear motion, rotary motion, complex assemblies and engineering services. We sell components to completely actuated and intelligent solutions, to building a complete piece of equipment.

      • Hillary Clintub

        Wow, Pamela! That sounds really exciting. Sounds like a high end Radio Shack for automation engineering enthusiasts. I’d go nuts with it if it was a high tech hardware store of off-the-shelf components. Lego pieces for robotics nerds. Thanks for responding.

  • jyg

    You forgot the biggest reason why people don’t want to go into manufacturing jobs: no longer can you earn a living wage, buy a house,raise a family, send your kids to college, nor have the American dream on the salaries and retirement benefits provided by manufacturers.

    • P Kan

      Thanks for the comment, JYG. While I can’t speak for all companies, the average salaries in manufacturing are higher than many other similar industries and the benefit packages are substantial. There is also more job security with manufacturing as there are so many jobs and so few employees. The comments from CTE Foundation above echo my thoughts and provide even more detail. The Manufacturing Institute and National Association of Manufacturers also provides current data that manufacturing is indeed a solid career choice – even here in the Bay Area.

    • Hillary Clintub

      Did you read her response to me describing what her company does? Sounds to me like her own company employs design and manufacturing engineers in some pretty exciting and well paying jobs in STEM fields. I can’t think of many other jobs that would be as exciting as designing components that other engineers could assemble like Lego pieces to make any kind of robot or automation equipment they could think of. I’d even PAY to have a job like that!

  • CTE Foundation Sonoma County

    Pamela, your perspective is right on. Messages must change. In Sonoma County, we have partnered with local manufacturers to help get the word out that today’s skilled manufacturing jobs do in fact pay wages that support a family, provide extensive benefits, and deliver a good quality of life. Another message point – many of these high-skill jobs don’t require a 4-year degree. Research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Center for US Labor Market Studies shows that more than 65% of US jobs are technical in nature, and while 8 in 10 jobs will require some post secondary training and/or certification, they do not require a university degree.

    Career technical education (CTE) programs are working to address some of these issues. Unlike vocational training programs of the past, CTE programs combine rigorous academic study with hands-on technical skills and training that not only engage students in their education, but also help them explore careers in STEM, engineering, advanced manufacturing, and other disciplines that lead to high-skill, high-wage, high-demand jobs. Students who participate in CTE perform better academically, graduate at higher rates, and are more likely to pursue post secondary certificates and training, AND are better prepared to meet 21st Century workplace demand.

    Thank you for taking an active part in your community and sharing your perspective on KQED. We need more champions like you to get the word out!

    • P Kan

      Thanks for the encouragement and the work you are doing to help solve the skills gap issue in manufacturing. Together, we will keep spreading the positive messages on skilled manufacturing jobs and strive to bring more employees into the industry.

  • Greg D

    I’m living it. I haven’t had an increase in over 10 years and I had to take two years off to go back to school full time. That was a waste. When I got back to work I was offered 18 and 21 dollar an hour jobs down from almost 29. I’m at 24 now and places don’t want my skill. They want work done. I am on the grind side. Many different types. We have tones of work and few employees. Mid of them should be cutting grass for a living. I can do so much more after 38 years but can’t seem to find my way. Tuff to tell a young guy to get into a trade that you can’t support a family on. Sad to see. I agree with all you said. Good luck to you and your company.

    • P Kan

      Thanks for your good wishes, Greg. I’m sorry to see the difficulty you’ve had, but encourage you to check out programs such as the one mentioned below from CTE Foundation.There are so many manufacturing companies that need workers and your years of
      experience could be invaluable to many of them.

  • Dave Lambert

    I love the Machine Tool in the picture!

    • P Kan

      Dave, I agree! I love machines – the old school ones as well as the new advanced CNC machines. A great way to see them up close is to visit a local manufacturer during National Manufacturing Day (MFG DAY), which is historically the first Friday in October. We have participated in this event since it was started. Last year we had so much interest we hosted several days of visitors throughout the month of October.

  • Thomas Rhea

    Pamela, I hear you. Like most, who came up through rank and file, have met that moment when one realizes as a “tradesman” that one has hit the wage ceiling. Cost of living and wage scales in the trades have been at odds for sometime now. Off-shoring was the rage and as the pendulum swings on-shoring is back in vogue. I am in a circle of people that often ask, “Where are the craftsmen?” I always answer, “When the businesses went off-shore they took the business with them. They left the craftsmen to fend for themselves.” Most all of that expertise like the stock market just went up in smoke. No one available who could pass these skill sets on to another generation. Now that the “trades” are back in demand, most of the few left have crossed over into other areas, not eager or interested in going back into the trade. I myself had gone back to engineering school, received a degree, and make a great living demonstrating a skill set that most thought was all but dead. Virtual as things have become, eventually, someone has to stoop and pick up a tool.

    Trade schools are great. But the years of turning, milling, grinding, and yes, bending materials are still required to take one from apprentice to master tradesman. In a era where the new high school diploma is a four year degree, unless you have the location in your favor, than a trade school diploma will just barely get you in the door. Maybe, just maybe, long enough before the next technology makes you “obsolete”. Luck!

    • P Kan

      Thomas – I agree that trade schools are only the beginning of the process, but at least they are back as a starting point! As you reference, there have been years where the trades were not emphasized in school, which is part of the reason we have the current skills gap. I encourage you to share your story with students and potential manufacturing workers as it sounds like you could guide them in ways to be successful now and in the future.

  • Dan Stracovsky

    Excellent outlook on what industry needs to move ahead. One could see that robots and computers will replace certain jobs in manufacturing but who will design and build those robots and also tailor then to do the job right. Hearing some people speak about common items or products we all use and as quickly discard I find it interesting that most have no idea or appreciation for what and who ensures the paper coffee cup is ready and waiting when needed. I would not expect that everyone should know exactly how everything is made but at least respect the process, a little. We need skilled people in the manufacturing industry who can produce a safe and functional product at the right price.

    • P Kan

      Thanks Dan. I might quote your last line in some of my future discussions I have on this topic – you sum it up well!

  • jbrac

    While I sympathize with the difficulties many manufacturing businesses have in finding people for skilled worker positions, it seems strange that they seem unwilling to respond in the ways that would alleviate the problem – invest in training the workers they need, or offer more money to obtain a scarce resource for which demand exceeds supply. Why did the machinist position remain vacant for almost a year? A less skilled worker who was willing to learn could have acquired a great deal of the needed skill during that time, and I cannot believe that no machinists were available who would be willing to work for Ms. Kan’s company if she had offered them adequate compensation to do so.

    • P Kan

      Good points about training the workers we need and I agree – everyone
      plays a role in this process! We have internal training programs at our company
      and support several external schools, programs and initiatives. Most of the
      manufacturers I know are also putting time and resources into training efforts.
      As for wages, I encourage you to check out recent data from groups like The
      Manufacturing Institute which highlight the higher salaries, benefits and job
      security offered by the industry.

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