Maybe we all need a little boot camp
Why a mission-focused mentality can go a long way in manufacturing
Military vets with experience in fixing and maintaining equipment can be a valuable asset to high-product-mix fabricators. Their military experience helps them develop standards and processes out of the chaos.
Michael Aroney flew F-14s in the Navy. He learned the importance of well-defined and -documented processes, as well as clear communication. In the military, a procedure wouldn’t be written as “inspect pump.” “If you give that instruction to five different people,” he said, “you’d get five different results.”
That’s not something you want when a machine or system failure could mean life or death. Procedures—including the when, where, and how—are defined carefully and specifically: Check for light wear of hoses, for chafing or fraying, and so on.
Considering this, it’s no surprise that after the service Aroney found success in the maintenance profession. Today he’s principal consultant for Allied Reliability Group, a Charleston, S.C., firm that last year launched a talent acquisition business unit for maintenance and reliability professionals, known as Allied Reliability Group Talent Acquisition. The service is open to all, but it has found particular success finding work for veterans.
Aroney gives keynote talks at veterans’ events and related meetings across the country, where he hears variations of the same story. Many vets begin as hourly workers and find better ways to get the job done. They rise through the ranks quickly to become an operational supervisor, at which point they can really shine.
This applies especially to those with specific military backgrounds. For instance, he talked about one maintenance professional who in the military operated and maintained components in a nuclear submarine. That training translated smoothly into the manufacturing profession. He discovered that many jobs quoted to take a certain amount of time could be completed considerably faster. He found better ways and standardized new procedures. He worked hard and rose through the ranks quickly.
Is this all just about work ethic? People can work really hard and still be really inefficient. Some use the term “work smarter,” but again, what does this really mean? Come to that, what does “efficient” mean? A machine operator can run extra parts for an order to save setup time because he knows the job will come up again soon. His machine uptime efficiency may be great, but he’s tying up an important resource for other work that really needs to run. Work-in-process builds, part flow suffers, inventory expenses rise, and on-time delivery rates go down. That’s not efficient at all.
Aroney provided some additional insight into the veteran work ethic and, specifically, how that kind of work ethic can help manufacturers, including those with highly variable environments, like the typical custom fabricator.
On the ground level, the soldier’s goal is to accomplish a specific mission. Anything electrical or mechanical that behaves unexpectedly puts lives at stake. As Aroney explained, this goal- and team-focused thinking translates well to private businesses and particularly well to a manufacturing plant.
Being mission-focused, many veterans naturally think not of machine efficiency but of companywide effectiveness. The mission isn’t to churn out as many parts as possible per hour on a certain laser or punch press. The mission is to make a profit by increasing the product’s value to the customer (providing services like subassembly, design for manufacturability, and supply chain management) and by reducing overall manufacturing time. If the same resources (people and machines) can ship more quality products in less time, profitability should climb. It’s not about my workcell or my machine. It’s about the entire production team in every area of the plant, from raw stock to the shipping dock.
One big misconception returning veterans have, Aroney said, is that they need a college degree for a good career, but many well-paying jobs in maintenance and reliability don’t require one. The same could be said for skilled jobs in metal fabrication. Manufacturing needs more degreed engineers, but it also needs more CAD technicians, CNC programmers, production managers, schedulers, press brake technicians, welders, and various maintenance professionals. All of them don’t necessarily require a four-year degree on the resume.
“If you keep a plant on a [Navy] ship running and maintain it, you can transfer those skills to keep a plant operating and producing whatever product it’s producing, be it Oreo cookies or aluminum,” Aroney said. “It’s the same mission focus.”
Perhaps one reason many say college is so important for a successful career is that secondary education has fallen so short. In May the government released its National Assessment of Educational Progress. This so-called “national report card” showed that many high school seniors entering college or the workforce don’t have the basic skills they need to succeed. Scores on the 2013 test were the same or worse than the scores from 2009, when the test was last given. Perhaps people think college will carry these people the last mile?
But there’s something else needed that may not come from traditional education, a core attribute that employers regard highly, often more than technical knowledge. Business leaders in metal fabrication have told me that the soft skills—leadership, mentoring, and teamwork—are hot commodities. In a 2010 survey by Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs®, the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International®, respondents said “leadership” was the most sought-after skill, more desirable than even welding or machining. You can teach someone about bending formulas; about CAD; about machine programming; about the differences between carbon steel, stainless steel, and aluminum, but you can’t teach them to care.
Of course, “soft skill” is a fuzzy term; so are “teamwork,” “mentoring,” and “leadership.” A bend deduction is a bend deduction is a bend deduction. But who’s a leader? Who’s a team player? How exactly do you define all this?
Maybe we all need a little boot camp, at least in the metaphorical sense. “Boot camp tears you down as an individual and builds you back up in a team image,” Aroney said, “so you put the team first. And if you’re mission-focused, you’re team-focused.”
A literal boot camp may be a bit extreme, but the ideas behind it—me second, others first—may plant a valuable seed for success. It’s not about getting overtime next week. It’s about sharing success over the long term, personally and professionally.
I know this is all overly idealistic. A talented employee may not fit with a certain company’s culture. Good and bad employees abound, as do good and bad companies. But moving forward with a little selflessness—a team-first, boot camp mentality—probably isn’t a bad way to tackle the messy complexities of life.
A variety of programs are available to help veterans find jobs in manufacturing, including Get Skills to Work, organized by the Manufacturing Institute in partnership with GE, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alcoa, and others. For more information, visit www.getskillstowork.org. For more on Alliance Reliability Group Talent Acquisition, visit http://alliedreliabilitygroup.com/staffing/job-seekers/.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.