WUOMFM

Shinola exec: What if the "skills gap" is actually a "values gap"?

Mar 14, 2016

The Next Idea

Over the past several years, economists and skilled trade industries have been incredibly optimistic about the future of U. S. manufacturing. In today’s society, consumers value American-made goods and the return of domestic manufacturing that comes with them.

However, behind this optimism is an all-too-real hurdle known as the “skills gap” that could drastically stunt the future of the industry. Essentially, industries like manufacturing that rely on skilled trades are seeing their growth significantly threatened due the lack of available skilled labor.

A craftsperson doing leather work
Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/cliffhorn/8000874224/

In order to solve this so-called “skills gap,” we have to look at the root of the problem. First and foremost, the “skills gap” is really a “value gap.”

At some point in our nation’s history, we stopped considering skilled trades viable, credible and honorable career options. We stigmatized them so much that we created a lack of interest and an overall devaluation of the trades in education, industry and society at large. But today we have a wonderful opportunity to address the gap and begin to close it on all three fronts by tapping into our American “masters of trade.”

At some point in our history, we stopped considering skilled trades viable, credible and honorable career options. We stigmatized them so much that we created a lack of interest and an overall devaluation of the trades in education, industry and society at large.

If you ask anyone who works with skilled tradespeople, they will tell you that their workforce is aging. We are about to start losing our experts at staggering rates as they begin to retire.

In other words, not only will the “skills gap” get exponentially worse, but we’re about to lose the very people who would teach our future masters. We need to celebrate these people and capture these resources. We need to make the right choice to teach it so we don’t lose it.

So, what’s The Next Idea? 

First, attract educators. American Mastery programs should be developed in which soon-to-retire master tradespeople could move into semi-retired paid educator positions in K-12 schools.

A great test community for this would be Detroit Public Schools. DPS, a school system with one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the country, could be well served by a region rich with senior trade masters.

At the same time, these programs should be introduced to other schools to elevate trade mastery as an alternative for students from all walks of life. There are a number of successful organizations that are using multi-generational engagement in education that could be looked to for cross-pollination of ideas.

One example is the Jazz Foundation, through which aging master musicians have introduced over 40,000 public school children to live blues and jazz through educational performances.

A Mastery program also has a place within industry.

Rather than move masters straight to retirement, companies should consider transitioning them to part-time master trainer positions. The trainers could lead formalized internship, apprentice and incumbent training programs. These programs could then link to structured internships within schools.

The costs to run these programs would be dwarfed by the costs of not fulfilling the demand for skilled workers. The Apprenticeship School is a great example of what a highly advanced company-owned program can achieve. The program has graduated over 10,000 students. Many have gone on to careers with its founding company, Newport News Shipbuilding.

At Shinola we have seen firsthand the benefits of working with masters.

Two years ago we set out to design, develop, sample and prototype all leather goods in our new Detroit-based Leather Studio.

We looked to a master to lead us.

Tony David, a 35+ year veteran  made our vision possible. He has taught and mentored a whole team of future masters who are now fully trained and creating high quality products. Together they are an amazingly fulfilled team.

Likewise, when we began to plan the build-out of our watch strap factory, we called on a semi-retired veteran of the leather industry.

Formerly of Coach, Inc., Lincoln Wolfe acts as our senior technical advisor. While much of his work is technical in nature, at least half of his time is spent teaching, training, coaching and passing on his seemingly endless wealth of knowledge.

Our staff loves having Lincoln, so much so that it’s common to hear “I wish Lincoln was here all the time.”

It is fair to say Lincoln enjoys his “semi-retirement” work as well. Lincoln, who first asked how we could work with such loud music, actually asked, “Where did our peppy music go?” when our speakers stopped working one day.  The reciprocal benefits go far beyond just passing knowledge. There is a real, positive social exchange.

As our society lives longer, we have generations of people who are able to stay active and be valued contributors in their later years. In the case of our American Masters, they can continue to provide expertise and real value not found anywhere else.

Finally, there are societal benefits.

As our society lives longer, we have generations of people who are able to stay active and be valued contributors in their later years.  In the case of our American Masters, they can continue to provide expertise and real value not found anywhere else. We should engage them to teach and train our future masters on a paid basis – not volunteer.

Isn’t this why we hire highly paid consultants?

This, too, is part of addressing the “value gap.”

There is an intangible value transferred between older and younger generations when they interact. Connecting through education brings a mutual respect and admiration--a societal imperative. Again, we can look to other models where inter-generational interactions work, such as Grandma’s House in Minneapolis where senior housing residents provide pre-school care for children.

Through education, the efforts of industry, and showing society the value of master craftspeople, we can change the landscape of American manufacturing and ensure that these skills live on for generations to come.

Jennifer Guarino is the Vice President for Leather at Shinola, a Detroit-based luxury goods company.

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