The industry needs “technical leaders”

New industry survey sheds light on the skilled-labor crisis

The FABRICATOR February 2011
July 14, 2011
By: Tim Heston

FMA survey reveals hiring managers are looking for technical leaders, those with technical knowhow with the ability to look beyond their individual work cell.

In 1985 Gary Foreman walked onto a metal fabricator’s shop floor for the first time. By then he had graduated from a high school vocational program and knew enough to be an entry-level machinist. So it made sense that his first job at C.O.W. Industries (Central Ohio Welding, was in the machine shop. Still, at the time most of the work at the Columbus, Ohio, job shop involved sheet metal fabrication and welding, not machining. On his first day on the job, he had never touched a press brake or a welding gun. Yet today he’s vice president of manufacturing and is being groomed to become company president in a few years.

Foreman’s background explains a little about his hiring practices. He hires for character, not experience. As he figures, you can offer extensive on-the-job training, but teaching someone eagerness and leadership is another story. Few would doubt it was Foreman’s leadership skills that got him to where he is today.

Leadership happens to be something this industry wants when it looks for a new hire, according to a recent survey from Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs® (NBT), the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl. More specifically, it may be that fabricators want to hire a technical leader.

I conjured up that “technical leader” term after poring over the survey. Late last year 185 industry managers—most of them from job shops and contract manufacturers—gave NBT insight into what exactly they were looking for in a new hire. Compiled into the foundation’s “2010 Manufacturing Job Skills Survey,” the responses shed new light on manufacturing’s skilled-labor crisis.

For years I’ve asked manufacturing managers about their greatest business challenges, and finding skilled labor always has landed near the top of their list. But according to survey responses, technical skill is only part of it. In fact, a good portion of respondents said that leadership is the single most difficult skill set to hire (see Figure 1). After leadership come the typical skills we’re used to seeing: welding, tool- and diemaking, blueprint reading, and so on. Machining also made the list, no doubt because many shops offer milling and turning capabilities to supplement sheet metal work. This is simply anecdotal, but according to a few shop owners I’ve spoken with, machinists are more likely to apply to full-fledged machine shops than to fabricators. And machining is, of course, a complex, hard-to-learn skill. Still, C.O.W. Industries’ Foreman is proof that a machinist can go far in metal fabrication.

“Leadership” is a subjective term. What makes a good leader? Some of it is intangible, but not all of it. Someone who can’t communicate probably won’t be a good leader, and that’s why communication ranks high on the survey. In the responses to academic-preparation skills most difficult to hire, basic communication shows up just after blueprint reading and basic math (see Figure 2).

Another survey response is even more intriguing: What general business skills are most difficult to hire? A full 76 percent of respondents said “leadership.” The next answer was “management,” at only 38 percent (see Figure 3).

The word management is more concrete than the word leadership, but what qualities differentiate the two? Bartell & Bartell Ltd. (www.bartellbartell. com), a consultancy, puts it this way: Managers focus on tasks, while leaders focus on teams. Leaders make the most of the people around them so that those people also become leaders.

Here’s my stab at it: Managers are taskmasters; leaders engage others around them and question the status quo. Leadership potential doesn’t hinge on a job title, either.

Consider the opening scene in one of the best manufacturing books I’ve read, Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal, a business book in novel form that covers the theory of constraints. TOC is an improvement technique that, among other things, describes how businesses can operate around a constraint, or bottleneck. The opening chapter introduces us to the plant manager who scurries to the manufacturing floor and tells the machine shop supervisor, called Ray, to stop his operators mid-setup so they can run an emergency job. The plant manager’s boss, Bill, arrived earlier that morning and chewed him out for a late order. The plant manager is understandably frazzled, and tells the operator to just do what his boss wants.

“OK, but we’ll be wasting a setup,” says Ray.

So we waste it!” I tell him. “Ray, I don’t even know what the situation is. But for Bill to be here there must be some kind of an emergency. Doesn’t that seem logical?”

“Yeah, sure,” says Ray. “Hey, I just want to know what to do.”

Ray may be an incredibly skilled machine operator—he climbed the ladder to the supervisor level, after all—but all that skill doesn’t make for a successful company. Ray’s a person who does what he’s told and lets chaos reign around him. His plant manager seems to be the same way (at least at the beginning of the book), and his boss, Bill, is reacting to an angry customer.

In fact, everyone is reacting, and no one is asking constructive, proactive questions—and asking those proactive questions may be what defines a “leader.” It may be someone who thinks not just about his or her job, but overall company practices and procedures: a mix of technical know-how and big-picture thinking.

Technical education still is vital, according to survey respondents, who were asked what academic preparation future workers will need (see Figure 4). High school education ranks high—no surprise there—but also topping the list are technical and specialized industry certifications. These could include welding certifications from the American Welding Society and other code-specific programs (the ASME boiler code, for example), as well as the newly introduced Precision Sheet Metal Operator (PSMO) certification from FMA.

This industry may need those with mechanical aptitude, curiosity, and the ability to look beyond their individual workcell and ask the right questions—attributes Foreman at C.O.W. Industries apparently had. After a year on the job he became second-shift supervisor and, by 1995, continuous improvement manager. In that role he helped the company reduce inventories and lead-times tremendously, from more than six weeks to mere days. Today most orders in this high-mix, low-volume job shop are delivered within seven business days.

Foreman did it by having both a strong technical foundation and by being a leader. In other words, he saw beyond the machining workcell he occupied during his early days on the job—and asked the right questions.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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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.

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