As both a parent of college-age children and a member of a publicly held diversified industrial company (Eaton Corporation) board of directors, I have more than a casual interest in the state of U.S. manufacturing investment and employment. I am struck by the fact that, on the one hand, our country has a nominal unemployment rate of a little over 8%, but a real unemployment rate (which includes those who want to work, but have given up applying for new employment) of over 10%; while, on the other hand, according to a 2011 study conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, it is highly likely that over 600,000 available manufacturing jobs are going unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers to fill them.
What distresses me when I read a report like this is the dysfunctional direction in which parents of college-age children and the colleges and universities nudge young people. Given what I know about the exciting and innovative products and services industrial companies like Eaton Corporation (a company led by a once-in-a-generation CEO, Alexander “Sandy” Cutler) provide to the global marketplace, I would jump at the chance to get started in a career in a manufacturing-oriented company. Moreover, unless I had a passion for a four-year college education, I would seriously consider either a two-year community college degree, or a time-compressed college education (graduating in 3 or 3 ½ years, instead of four).
Unfortunately, I see several bad decisions made across all sectors of the socio-economic spectrum:
- In wealthy communities like the one in which I live, parents start years before the college application process begins to build and execute on a plan to get their children into the most prestigious universities, whether or not that goal is the right one for their children. Many parents, including those planning a college admissions strategy for a daughter, drive their children to focus on athletics, particularly in sports like lacrosse, racquet sports, rowing, and horseback riding, because those become tickets to admission to prestigious universities.
Unfortunately, the students who get into universities this way often do not know what to do when they get there. Every one of us has to decide who we are, and what we want out of life. Those who fulfill their parents’ fantasies and dreams end up finding out, often after years of misery that living out someone else’s dreams is not a ticket to future success.
Many young people at prestigious universities who make a decision about a future career gravitate to the most fashionable career path at the time they are graduating, not the one which matches best to their skills and interests over the long term. During my lifetime, rocket science, law, journalism (as a result of Watergate), medicine, business school, and marketing all were temporarily fashionable. Information technology was popular in the late 1990’s because of the temporarily inflated demand for IT professionals due to the Y2K problem. Auditing became hot after Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. The one common thread about all of these fashionable courses of study is that a sizable percentage of people who pursued them became unemployed years later when talent surpluses were created in those fields as demand waned.
Similarly, students who go to four-year colleges and universities without knowing what they want to get from a college education often only secure one thing from their four-year college experience, a heavy long-term debt load from student loans. College education does not exist solely, or even primarily to prepare individuals for specific jobs, but if a student has no idea why he or she is there, other than that a college degree is an essential credential, that credential will yield no value to that student.
Companies like Eaton Corporation manufacture and market solutions to society’s most pressing problems. Eaton’s power management solutions are innovative in improving the energy efficiency of automobile engines, data centers, aircraft, construction equipment, and farm equipment, to name a few examples of the end products in which Eaton components and subsystems are used. Young people, who are often mission-driven, can not only get excited about working at a company like Eaton, but will be at the cutting edge of addressing issues that will be with us years or even decades later. These kinds of companies sometimes do not tend to have the right applicants for some available jobs for many reasons:
- The societal skills gap in the United States is persistent and unlikely to be eliminated because the work is perceived, incorrectly I believe, as unglamorous.
- There is a huge demand for people to perform highly skilled and innovative manufacturing and engineering work all over the world. These globally competitive diversified industrial companies have operations on every continent and freely move people where there is growing customer demand.
- The way these companies solve major societal problems does not lend itself to 10-second sound bites and or national TV advertising. As a result, the average parent or student is unaware of what companies like Eaton or its diversified industrial counterparts actually contribute to solving a problem like reducing gasoline consumption in passenger cars. By way of an example of a single Eaton product, the Eaton Supercharger is a technology that enables smaller automobile engines to have the power and acceleration of larger engines. Thus, a Supercharger in a 4-cylinder engine, which uses less gasoline than a 6-cylinder engine, enables the engine to perform like a 6-cylinder engine, but with the lower gasoline consumption of a 4-cylinder engine.
I counsel our three children to follow their passions, because I believe those who do so have the greatest long-term employability. They are very smart, highly driven people who will find a way to succeed in any marketplace, because, beyond a minimum level of competence and intelligence in a field, success comes to those who have the most passion to succeed.
At the same time, I tell them to follow the principle implicit in the comment of the greatest ice hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, who attributed his success to skating where the puck was going, not to where it was. Anyone who wants to plan for future success should be focusing on marketplace problems or opportunities that will be with us for a long time and that will continue to yield new solution needs. Getting the credential of a four-year college degree is useless unless someone securing that degree has learned what he or she is able to do, wants to do, and can make a long term difference doing.