RE-POSTED WITH PERMISSION FROM R. STODGHILL
Bill Howard, marketing manager for Max Daetwyler Corp., a maker of high-tech printing equipment in Huntersville, was lamenting last week about the stigma of manufacturing jobs among Americans today.
"With the advent of the computer age and the glamorous industries that have come up around it, manufacturing is looked down on," he said. "But our guys can take a piece of steel and turn it into an object of art. And the math skills required can be incredible. I mean, this is a skilled situation - it's not moving lumber and bricks around the yard."
Howard's not looking for sympathy. In fact, while the world has been updating Facebook pages and downloading iTunes, Max Daetwyler is among a growing group of manufacturers trying to rebuild their image after a long battering.
These days, manufacturers not only want us to know that rumors of their death are premature, but that their products are relevant, mission is noble, and attitude is cool.
The grandest attempt might be Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" ad campaign, launched during the Super Bowl in February. There was rapper Eminem cruising through Detroit's hardscrabble streets in a Chrysler 200 as a gravelly voice-over rhapsodized about Motown's resilience:
"You see, it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel," the narrator says. "Add hard work and conviction. And a know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us. That's who we are. That's our story."
Later this month, hundreds of N.C. manufacturers, including Max Daetwyler, will start telling their stories in an ambitious new program called the "Manufacturing Makes It Real Network." Sponsored by the Industrial Extension Service (IES) at N.C. State University, the program consists of a series of monthly events in various cities aimed at celebrating the state's manufacturers, from tortilla chips to microchips.
The hope also is to attract new talent into an industry facing a skilled-labor shortage. The first network event will be April 27 in Morrisville at Flextronics, an electronics supplier to technology companies. On June 28, 1:30-4:30 p.m., Max Daetwyler will host the event.
According to a study by the N.C. Department of Labor, 85 percent of the state's manufacturers report a shortage of technically skilled employees - a crisis that will worsen as baby boomers retire.
The fact is, the decline in textiles and furniture has made it tough for manufacturers to recruit new talent.
"There's a whole mentality that we want to turn around," said Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff, IES executive director. "There have been so many plant closings in the state, and that's left a bad taste in people's mouth."
Back in the 1960s, for example, manufacturing accounted for some 40 percent of the state's gross domestic product. Today, while that number is down to 19.4 percent, manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, chemicals and food are huge drivers of the state's economy, employing 518,000 workers, or 14.5 percent of the work force.
"This is an opportunity to have a collective voice," Ratcliff said. "And we fully expect that our voice will be loud enough to be heard." After such a long silence, it'll sound like music to many.