Creating a technical work force for tomorrow


Project Management in Action

From The Executive Suite


Richard L. White is executive vice president of Miles Inc., president of the Industrial Chemicals Division, and serves as a member of the Miles Inc. Board of Directors and Executive Committee.

Dr. White is a graduate of Westminster College with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. He holds a master's degree and Ph.D. in international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. White is chairman of the Board of Directors of Duquesne University and a board member of the Pittsburgh Opera, the Association of Retarded Citizens and serves as the vice chairman for the Pittsburgh Diocese Chimbote Foundation. In early 1992, Dr. White was appointed as the Honorary Consul of the United States of Nicaragua.

The following is an adaptation of Dr. White's keynote address at the opening plenary session of the 1992 PMI Seminar/Symposium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I heard a report on Pittsburgh schools a few weeks ago that was absolutely frightening. Listen to these statistics, which I believe to be typical of urban schools throughout the U. S.:

  • By grade eight, 44 percent of students in the Pittsburgh public schools need remedial help in math and reading.
  • Four out of five African-American students in Pittsburgh public schools aren't prepared to continue in math or Algebra 1.
  • One-fifth of all Americans are functionally illiterate. Only one-half of us are able to read an 8th grade level book.

WOW! ! Now, if one of our national education goals is that by the year 2000 every adult U.S. citizen will be literate and possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy, we better do something … quick!!

As I see it there are really only three things that a business does: it buys, it adds value, and it sells. Businesses have been doing this for decades. The only things that have really changed are which products; what particular marketplaces; and some new technologies and techniques.

Marketplaces in the ‘90s require an international approach to the “buy-add value—sell” equation. For instance, at Miles, we have long realized that the chemical industry is not just a national affair. Our products are world products. Our sourcing, our supply lines, and markets are international. And our planning is also global in scope.

Internationalization has brought great opportunity, for sure, but it has also brought rigorous competition. The race is to the fleet, the battle to the strong, the sale to the best supplier.

As our nation strives to meet the rigors of international competition in the 1990s and beyond, the most critical aspect of our preparedness is the continued development of our work force.

Unfortunately, in these difficult global economic times more is not always better. More schooling is not by itself the remedy. We suffer from a debilitating-perhaps fatal— disease I call “college-itis.” Few ideas are more entrenched in the U.S. popular consciousness than the route to the American Dream being a four-year college degree.

Frankly, I consider the misperception of the value and dignity in technical work a travesty …

Focus on the needs of the customers, then aim higher. It is no longer enough just to meet their needs—we have to exceed them.

  • When over 60 percent of the jobs in this country do not require a college degree;
  • When the Department of Labor projects that the demand for individuals with technical training in electronics is likely to increase by 38 percent before the end of the decade;
  • When thousands of managerial and professional workers have lost their jobs or are concerned about job security; and
  • When the U.S. Department of Labor reports that there are five technicians’ jobs available for every one engineering position. At some companies, the ratio is as high as 20 to 1.

Our society has stigmatized technical education. Young people are reluctant to take technical training because they do not understand that it can lead to a rewarding career. Careers in installation, servicing, repair, modification, operation and sales support of products such as computers, computer networks, photocopiers, process control equipment, security systems, medical equipment and telecommunications. There is also a continuing need for competent people to operate and maintain the complex machinery upon which many businesses depend. So technicians’ jobs are less vulnerable than others to economic downturns.

If we are to be successful in the international arena, we must understand that capable technicians, skilled craftspeople, and proficient service workers are vital to the future of the U.S. And that justifiable pride can be taken in any of these jobs—if they are jobs well done. These workers and society must be encouraged to appreciate the value of their accomplishments and the importance of their career choices. Teachers in particular need to be convinced of the value of vo-technical careers.

It is imperative too that we in the business world work aggressively to give technical education the status it deserves. Our influence can help make sure that the young people who will compose our future work force will have the skills that businesses need to survive.

And here is where you can help. Right now you have the power to help improve the training levels and expectations of your potential employees. You can:

  • Educate parents to the fine career opportunities technical industries offer.
  • Work with your local science and vocational education teachers to develop curricula that can be applied directly in the workplace.
  • Convince local guidance counselors that technician careers are interesting and rewarding.
  • Give students opportunities to talk with and observe technicians at work.
  • Donate technical equipment so students have more chances to learn technical skills hands-on.
  • Most importantly, help young people realize the value and dignity of technical training and technical careers.

Many young people do not know their choices. They do not know what technical training is all about. And they certainly do not know that they can get well-paying jobs after just two years of technical training. We need to let them know.

Other countries have well-established systems for this segment of their populations. Australia and Germany, for example, have plans in which school curricula are tailored to specific jobs and students spend time in the workplace. In Japan, educators cooperate with business leaders to groom students for specific jobs and steer them to specific firms. I am not suggesting we do exactly the same, but we do need to broaden our approaches.

In a competitive world you have two possibilities: you can lose by maintaining the status quo, or if you want to win, you can change. One change that is required is a sophisticated, comprehensive apprenticeship program; one that is actively supported by our educational system, the business community, government, and, most importantly, by society's members at large. Of course this requires business to clearly specify what it expects in jobs that can be learned in two-year schools. It will take some effort on everybody's part.

In work force development, the product is education and training— and the customers are our children, our families, and our friends.

A program like this would promote positive interaction between the schoolroom and the workplace. Young people would get a sound general education along with expert knowledge in a technology or craft- Hopefully, this type of program would eliminate the notion that somehow these people are second-class citizens because of their career choices. In many parts of the world, apprenticeship programs have been an honored and valued approach to education since medieval times. We need to reintroduce them into America's social fabric.

Traditionally, employers have said to schools: “You educate them, then send thereto us, and we will take care of them from there.” Well, let me strongly say that business has a serious obligation to begin to provide additional education for its own employees. Business is a leader in almost every community. It is important that we become change-agents of society and address the problem of workforce preparation as well. We need to help young people get prepared for jobs in their future. And we need to help prepare current workers for the jobs that society requires of them.

Business cooperation with school systems is vital. In Germany, chambers of commerce administer apprenticeship programs. In Japan, school administrators act as recruiting agents for major companies.

Britain, France, and Spain spend more than twice as much as the U.S. on the non-college-bound—Germany more than three times as much. France refunds a 1 percent business sales tax to companies that train workers.

Despite the increasing need for additional education and training, only 100 to 200 companies nationally spend more than the equivalent of 2 percent of their payroll on formal training. And two-thirds of those dollars are for educating employees in the “professional” ranks.

We need to increase training in technical fields, including math and reading skills. With today's changing demographics we cannot afford not to provide additional training. A greater proportion of our work force is coming from a traditionally under-educated segment of our society, with an increasing number of immigrants.

What I'm proposing is CHANGE. Change that starts with drastic attention to the complex world of education and work force development to regain America's edge in the international marketplace. But the major change needed to improve the skills of the forgotten half of our economy is going to take more than adding a few classes or signing a bill-it's going to take efforts from all of us.

The economic competition to determine who succeeds in the 21st century is in full swing. The U.S. cannot even hold its own without making major changes in education and the link between the workplace and the classroom.

Now, I know there are going to be a million questions on subjects ranging from financing, to administering, to day-today implementation. I also know that if we leave it to them, the academics and politicians would study, write and talk the subject to death and never really do a thing to remedy the situation. By then, it might be too late.

Instead, I would like to offer a challenge to business. It is rather simple, but when applied to work-related training, may well begin to help us achieve our goals: Focus on the needs of the customers, then aim higher. It is no longer enough just to meet their needs—we have to exceed them.

In work force development, the product is education and training-and the customers are our children, our families, and our friends.

Make no mistake about it: What is at risk here is not just an edge in the “buy-add value—sell” equation. What is at risk is the ability of the U.S. to compete in the international arena-to continue to enjoy the fruits of our economy, our jobs, and our way of life.




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