It’s Not a Sin to Get Your Hands Dirty

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David ColeDr. David Cole is the Chairman of AutoHarvest (, a web based tool to accelerate innovation in the auto industry. Dr. Cole is Chairman Emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research and a former Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan where he taught courses related to the automotive field for over 25 years. He is a fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Engineering Society of Detroit and Society of Manufacturing Engineers and was recently elected to the Automotive Hall of Fame.

One of the great challenges facing our economy today and into the future is the availability of an appropriately educated and skilled workforce. In a Wall Street Journal article on Ft. Wayne, Indiana we saw a snap-shot of a broader national issue: the shortage of talent in manufacturing regions. In Ft. Wayne they have high unemployment and a large number of job openings suggesting a mismatch between the needs and skills available. In fact one of the most severe shortages is for skilled trades and technicians, skills that are taught in a local community college. The community college in Ft. Wayne was using only about 70% of its capacity to educate young people in these disciplines.

In Michigan, at a recent Summit on Jobs organized by the governor, the number one shortage of talent in Michigan was skilled trades and technicians. In second place were engineers with mechanical/electrical abilities. One important fact about both of these is that you have to “get your hands dirty”. Another way of looking at it is that it doesn’t necessarily mean getting oil and grime on your hands and clothes but you really must know how things work and have a deep understanding of how things work in the real world of manufacturing.

Knowledge is one thing we all believe is important but that is only a start; the application of that knowledge is what creates value. I saw this first hand as a young lad born and raised in Detroit. I was educated in the public schools and had “hands-on” courses like metal, machine and wood shop and drafting as well as the traditional academic courses of math, science and English. Following that I earned 4 degrees from the University of Michigan culminating in a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. During my early years I was fortunate to have spent summers on my grandparent’s/uncle’s farm in West Michigan from about age 5 to 19. Early on it was more of a vacation summer but later turned into a work summer. One thing I learned very early is that farming is a hands-on profession. This became particularly clear when in my early teens my uncles reserved for me the task of cleaning the box-stalls in the barn after the winter. You haven’t lived until you put a fork into accumulated straw and manure and smell something very special. When something broke on the farm, you didn’t run to the city to buy whatever broke but you fixed it and got back to business. This was a wonderful experience for me and it doesn’t mean that everyone should have the opportunity to shovel manure, but it does suggest that getting your hands dirty is not such a bad thing and in fact it is a form of application learning. I have always cherished that experience as well as fresh strawberry shortcake, really fresh sweet corn and the opportunity to be around some very special people who viewed work as fun.

For some reason today, we have moved away from the idea that “getting your hands dirty” is a good thing. Many young people and their parents envision a job on Wall Street or some other “clean” profession when the needs are so great in one of the most important parts of our economy; manufacturing. Using the auto industry as an example; an auto manufacturer today has an economic multiplier of about 10, i.e. for every job at an auto company like Ford, GM or Toyota there are 9 other jobs tied to that job in suppliers or “spin-off” jobs like grocery stores, restaurants, etc. That really “cool” Wall Street job has a multiplier of about 2 which suggests our economy would be in tough shape if all we had were Wall Street jobs.

We are seeing some reversal of the trend but we have much to do. Most schools have reduced their investment and teaching of the “manual arts” partly because they require expensive equipment and special staffing. That is beginning to shift a bit, thankfully, but we still have much more to do. One thing that everyone should understand is that the mental model of a manufacturing facility with smoke and noise is very outdated. If you are in manufacturing today, you are doing Advanced Manufacturing which is very high tech and extremely productive. Unfortunately most don’t have that picture. One example of this “new wave of thinking” is at my former employer, The University of Michigan Mechanical Engineering Dept. where I am on their External Advisory Board. Every student, every year gets their hands dirty in courses where they design, build, test and present and in a number of very popular student projects like the Solar Car, Formula SAE or the Mini-Baja team projects. Of course this is done using the most contemporary and advanced technologies while getting their “hands dirty”.

One of the most important things we can do is change the image and spell-out the amazing opportunities in modern manufacturing in order to attract more young people to an education that will mesh with the explosion of needs for very high tech but also “hands on” jobs.

This applies to young men but also young women. An interesting fact is that the percentage of young women pursuing careers in manufacturing is actually declining at the same time we are graduating more young women from college than young men. We are also witnessing a dramatic shift in how organizations are managed. The “King is Dead” as a leader as we are moving to more of a “coach style” of leadership which is generally more consistent with the feminine approach with emphasis on the team and effective multitasking. Collaboration, relationships and connectivity are all necessary in this era of amazingly complex things and organizations. No one is smart enough to know everything they need to know; the team is however.

This raises another point in that when we think of getting our “hands dirty”, it doesn’t just apply to the physical world. One characteristic of engineers and finance folks, people that often run companies, is that they often tend to be more introverted. Introverts generally are more focused on numbers and things i.e. show them a number and they can make a decision. This is often not true in the complex world of today, e.g. how do you measure the lost work of an unmotivated employee? The team concept and inter-personal relationships are extremely important in the modern organization. The King often struggles with these which suggest that “getting your hands dirty” also means working effectively with people.

Knowledge and innovation are critically important in today’s complex world. However knowing something and being able to do it are often a problem. I’m reminded of a friend, Jay Hook, who used to lead Masco Corporation’s Automotive Operations. Jay has a master’s degree in engineering from Northwestern University. Before becoming a part of the auto industry he played professional baseball and in fact was a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds and then the New York Mets. The iconic baseball manager, Casey Stengel, was with the Mets when Jay was on the team. One day before Jay was to start a game, one of his team mates asked “why does a curve ball curve?” Of course as an engineer the explanation was really quite simple; “it is due to the Bernoulli effect; when you put a spin on the ball the velocity on opposite sides of the ball are different leading to a pressure differential which when integrated over the projected area of the ball, creates a force that causes the ball to curve”. Stengel overheard the discussion and as Jay started the game, he struggled to get the other team out and was “knocked out of the box” and replaced by a relief pitcher. Back in the clubhouse after the game, Stengel came up to Jay and said “too bad you can’t do what you know”. And this issue is with us today in everything we do. Academic knowledge is great but you really have “to do what you know” if you are going to create value.

One country that has been a pre-imminent manufacturing power for many years is Germany. Even today they are a manufacturing leader in the EU. One of the foundations of Germany’s success is their technical training program for “hands- on” skilled trades and technicians. These positions are highly regarded and even revered in Germany and many aspire to be trained appropriately to fill these important jobs. For the typical German, it is not a sin to work with your hands and mind.

If we in the United States are to maintain the strength of our economy, we have to manufacture goods. Fortunately with the enormous productivity improvements over the past several decades, we can compete effectively with low wage countries in making what we could call “Big Tech”; things like cars, trucks, washing machines and more. For example today, if you assemble a car in China because of less costly labor, the transportation cost is greater than the savings on labor. Our concern is that we may not have an appropriately skilled labor force to do it. This doesn’t really apply to “Small Tech” like an iPhone or laptop that has high “value density” with inherently low transportation costs.

To me it is becoming increasingly clear that “getting your hands dirty” is a good thing for the individual as well as our country. No matter what field one may choose, whether a skilled trade/technician or an engineer or accountant, practical “hands on” experience is critically important. We have a choice; we can sit back and let others around the world do the tough task of manufacturing the stuff that we need to live or we can “step up to the plate” and put our minds and hands to work.

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