A Publication of WTVP

David Boulay is the new president of the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC). A 20-year veteran of manufacturing and economic development, Boulay was formerly the deputy director of the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He holds a PhD in Workforce Development and Education, an MBA and a BS in Operations Management.

What are some workforce challenges manufacturers face today?
Although the recession resulted in large numbers of manufacturing employees who lost their jobs or were laid off, as the economy has started to bounce back, manufacturers are still finding it increasingly difficult to bring on workers with the updated skills they need to be productive in a higher-tech manufacturing environment. This inability for companies to find skilled workers, even in times of high unemployment, is indicative of a longer-term trend: the U.S. can no longer compete globally with low-skill workers.

There’s a common misperception that there are no manufacturing jobs available in the United States at all. In truth, there are jobs, but the skill set and education required to fill them is outpacing the pool of prepared employees.

What has changed?
Some things haven’t changed, like the need to show up on time, pass the drug test and perform the duties required of the job. What has evolved is the fact that today’s manufacturing workers use their head as much as their hands. Running an automated piece of machinery is no less demanding than physically welding a part; it just requires a different set of skills.

How are we doing preparing people for these jobs?
I haven’t been in Illinois long enough to evaluate how this state is doing in terms of giving younger people the math and science preparation they need, but I am aware that there are excellent programs available from our state’s community colleges, universities and industry associations that can prepare workers for a manufacturing career.

We’re also seeing the private sector invest directly in growing the labor force they will need in the future. It’s more than just a week of on-the-job training or a formal education. The evolving needs of industry and the impact of advanced manufacturing technology and globalization requires continuous learning. Before I took the job at IMEC, I saw that they had done a study of Illinois manufacturers and found that 35 percent provide eight or fewer hours of annual training per employee. Only one in sixteen provide more than 40 hours, which is considered world-class. In other countries, where the real competition is, we see a much higher level of investment in ongoing worker preparation.

Aren’t fewer people picking manufacturing as a career?
Yes, and we believe it’s due in part to the negative image of manufacturing in general. Younger people in particular think of manufacturing as dirty, dark and dangerous. Granted, not all manufacturers are high-tech, but today’s manufacturing plants look much different than they did years ago. We have to raise the image of the sector itself, update negative perceptions and not be content to foster a notion that we don’t produce anything in this country anymore.

What about the role of unions in the future?
There seems to be a realization within the organized workforce that the competition is no longer the guy down the street, but the company halfway across the world. The game has changed. Maybe we’re getting to the point where the U.S. worker is thinking differently about how to protect his or her future. For example, how can I cut the time it takes me to perform a task so that my productivity is raised and my company is more cost-competitive? How can I add more value so that it’s less likely that the work I’m currently doing now is offshored? How can I help my company develop new products and services? How can I contribute as part of work teams to solve internal problems or improve our operations?

What are some of those improvement methods?
We see far less workforce resistance to implementation of proven continuous improvement methods, such as lean manufacturing and 6 Sigma. Lean is an interesting case. Ten years ago, if you announced a lean manufacturing program in a company, most of the workers would have immediately presumed that half the people were going to be let go. We always heard, “Lean just means fewer of me.” I think we’ve done a good job of showing companies and their workers that continuous improvement requires heavy employee involvement in decision-making and problem solving. It means that capacity will be increased and their own productivity and job satisfaction will improve. Lean has become positioned as a business strategy rather than a one-time fix. That’s been good for the employees.

What are your plans for IMEC?
I’m impressed with the level of expertise in the organization, especially the leadership and involvement of the IMEC Board. I’ve seen organizations like these that do not have the commitment of an active volunteer board. When you have leaders from companies like Deere, Boeing, Caterpillar, and Illinois’ premier small and mid-sized manufacturing companies helping guide your business strategy, you know that the organization is focused on those issues and challenges that are relevant to the Illinois manufacturing sector. I’m looking forward to meeting our clients and getting to know how we can help them achieve even greater levels of success. iBi