A skilled-labor crisis, or crisis of character?

September 19, 2012
By: Tim Heston

The Chicago teacher’s strike has a silver lining. It has gotten us talking about problems in education. These are problems metal fabricators are all too familiar with, thanks to the ongoing skilled labor crisis. Last weekend This American Life aired a show that asked a question that’s so basic it’s a little embarrassing that we have to ask it: What do our children really need to know to succeed?

During the episode, researchers and reporters broke down those elements into two categories: cognitive and noncognitive skills. The former is much easier to define than the latter. Cognitive skills entail one’s ability to listen, look, or read and comprehend the material. It’s the thinking part of the brain. The noncognitive skills involve personality traits--that is, those soft skills that so many employers desire these days. People who can work well and relate to others can accomplish a lot in the workplace.

In fact, many company leaders have told me that they actually put a bit more weight on those soft skills when hiring. Companies like Wisconsin-based Jameson Manufacturing Oshkosh Inc. look for traits that show a person will work well with others, toward the common goal of continuous improvement. Shop managers told me that as long as a new hire has those soft skills--including a work ethic and true engagement with a task at hand--they can teach the other technical material, from basic welding technique to press brake programming.

This reality now is being verified by economists and other researchers, though they approach the problem from a different perspective. You can teach math problems all day long, but you can’t force someone to absorb the material. Why, exactly? As researchers have found, it turns out that a lot of underprivileged kids--and many of them attend Chicago Public Schools--actually have brains that have developed pathways that make cognitive skills more difficult to develop. They say this occurs because of stress.

This comes from the fight-or-flight instinct. That instinct redirects blood to areas of the body so you can react quickly to save yourself in a life or death situation. It also happens to mute to some extent the thinking portions of our brain, and for good reason. Thinking would just slow our reaction time.  But as This American Life reported, the fight or flight instinct becomes overused with some children who experience stress in the home and elsewhere, and the brain adapts, opening up the flight-or-flight pathways while limiting the pathways that help cognition.

Such research has led teachers to become more like coaches. How they connect with children directly affects how well kids learn. It turns out that, through specific kinds of coaching, those soft skills actually can be taught. And when kids learn those noncognitive skills, the cognitive skills follow.

Admittedly, this applies more to the teaching world than it does to manufacturing. People who underperform on the job probably don’t have altered brain pathways. They may just not like the work or their employer. Some people just don’t get along, and not all companies are great to work for. The skilled labor crisis is a gumbo of problems: poor math instruction; manufacturing’s poor image; the emphasis on four-year degrees versus a technical education; the list goes on.

But it does show how good soft skills and personality traits correlate strongly with a person’s financial and personal well-being. Shop managers repeatedly tell me about the importance of character. Consider one survey conducted by Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs® (NBT), the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl. Of the most difficult to find skills were the usual suspects: press brake operation and welding. But topping out everything was yet another one of those noncognitive skills: “leadership.”

We call it the “skilled labor crisis,” but at some level, it really may be a crisis of character. And for a metal fabrication business, finding people with those good character traits--those soft skills, work ethic, noncognitive skills, whatever you want to call them--may be the key to future success.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

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