MANUFACTURING: Where a Thought Becomes a Thing

Women and men gain the skills required to succeed in modern manufacturing at Pennsylvania College of Technology.

My mother worked in factories, often overnight on the third shift to allow parenting of her three children during the day.

Mom was not college educated and she would not have used the word “career” to describe her work outside of the home. Still, she found a real sense of real pride and accomplishment in doing her jobs well.

Her father, my grandfather, also worked a factory job in order to sustain a small family farm. His second-shift work as a boiler (furnace) maker provided greater financial security than growing crops and raising cattle, which he did before carrying his lunch bucket and thermos off to work every afternoon.

In my lifetime, within my own family, I saw first-hand the impact of a changing economy. First, industry overtook agriculture as the primary source of jobs in rural Pennsylvania. Later, as the service and information sectors grew, the majority of traditional manufacturing jobs – like those my mother, my grandfather and most of my family once depended upon – were lost.

Remembering my mother, Estella Jean Mahaffey Helm, 1935-2017.

It is natural for us – as individuals and as a society – to mourn our losses. The past often looks perfect in a rear view mirror. However, there comes a time when we must face forward and focus on a new vision for the future instead of staring blindly into a reflection of the past.

Since 2012, National Manufacturing Day – celebrated on the first Friday of October – has inspired a new way of thinking about American industry.

“We wanted to correct the idea that manufacturing involved repetitive, unskilled tasks that happened in dark, dirty factories … and show people what manufacturing really looks like. The fact is, today’s manufacturing jobs are highly skilled. Not only that, but they take place in some of the most exciting, innovative work environments anywhere. The thought behind Manufacturing Day was therefore: Bring the public to real manufacturing environments and let them see for themselves,” say the event founders.

Any child who ever had the opportunity to visit a parent’s workplace knows how powerful the memory of those visits can be. The chance to step into a new environment, charged with energy, purpose and productivity, offers a glimpse into the child’s own future as a productive member of the workforce.

National Manufacturing Day is Friday, Oct. 5.

I encourage you to celebrate National Manufacturing Day next Friday, Oct. 5, by learning more about what is really happening in today’s manufacturing workplace.  You can start by watching Working Class: Competition Drives Innovation! Why Science Matters. Then you can:

  • host or sponsor an event; online resources can help with planning and promotion.
  • attend an event; an online map shows location of more than 1,900 activities scheduled across the nation for this year’s event .
  • access online educational resources including “An Introduction to Teaching Guide” that describes opportunities in modern manufacturing and “The Smart MFG Comic Book,” which allows students to use an app and comic book to follow the story of superheroes who solve everyday manufacturing challenges to produce a drone.
Think factories are still dark and dirty? Think again.

A woman who has played a key role in promoting National Manufacturing Day is Jennifer McNelly, former president of The Manufacturing Institute.

Appearing in Working Class: Competition Drives Innovation! Why Science Matters, McNelly says, “I think the definition of manufacturing has changed. When I think about it … it’s where the thought becomes the thing, because manufacturing is one of those environments where you can take an idea and a concept, you can produce it and you can market it.”

McNelly and other industry leaders believe that two million jobs could go unfilled over the next decade. A lack of young, skilled individuals prepared to excel in modern, automated manufacturing environments could inhibit future industry growth.

“I think one of the greatest challenges facing us,” she says, “is whether or not we’ll continue to make things in this country … If we don’t have the right individuals, then manufacturing can’t grow.”

Newton’s third law (described in Working Class: Competition Drives Innovation! Why Science Matters) teaches us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. One employment sector falls, another rises. Industrial robots take over low-skill manufacturing functions, while creating employment opportunities for men and women skilled in automation.

“I think one of the greatest challenges facing us is whether or not we’ll continue to make things in this country … If we don’t have the right individuals, then manufacturing can’t grow.”

The world of work changes constantly, because the world never stops changing. Innovation, invention, investment and global insecurity influence economies on a large scale and in every household.

I was fortunate to come from a family of workers who were willing to change, to reimagine their work roles and retrain in order to be eligible for new employment opportunities. Their fortitude and flexibility inspired me to move confidently from one assignment to the next throughout my career.

My grandfather would find it hard to believe that I earn a living by interviewing people, typing words into a computer, and scripting films for public television. Yet, I know he would be pleased to find in my words an encouragement for the working class values that he instilled in his daughter and she instilled in me.

Working Class: Competition Drives Innovation! Why Science Matters is the latest in a series of documentaries that I, as part of a Pennsylvania College of Technology and WVIA Public Media partnership, have the opportunity to bring to public television and online audiences.

Faculty with a lifetime of real-world experience — like Richard Hendricks, who appears in Working Class: Competition Drives Innovation! Why Science Matters — guide Penn College students.

The film features interviews with secondary and postsecondary faculty who are sharing insights into the connection between science and manufacturing with students in classroom lessons and in regional and international competitions.

It is time to correct our misunderstandings about manufacturing, so that American industry can compete in an ever growing, ever changing global marketplace for many generations to come.









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