Oct. 2 was Manufacturing Day, a nationwide promotion of a sometimes misunderstood and underappreciated sector of the economy co-sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International and the U.S. Commerce Dept.’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
At Denso Manufacturing Michigan in Battle Creek, MI, a supplier of air-conditioning and engine-cooling components and systems to the Detroit Three automakers as well as Honda and Toyota, talking up manufacturing is a year-round effort.
WardsAuto recently spoke with Karen Boyer, vice president-General Administration at Denso Manufacturing Michigan, a subsidiary of Denso International America, about its support of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education as a gateway to manufacturing careers.
WardsAuto: Have you noticed a new emphasis on enhancing STEM education since the issue arose several years ago? Where is the emphasis strongest – K-12 schools, community colleges or other institutions?
Boyer: Absolutely. It’s really exciting to see this increased emphasis on STEM education and careers. For a global automotive supplier like Denso, we aren’t emphasizing one level of education over the other. In addition to our own internal apprenticeship and internship programs, we’re continuing to expand our presence in the education community with programs like Project Lead the Way and First Robotics.
WardsAuto: By the time young people without prior exposure to STEM reach college, is it too late to “sell” them on STEM studies?
Boyer: I don’t think it’s ever too late to get into STEM studies. Does a background help? Sure, but that doesn’t mean that a student who has dedicated a lot of time to music, theater or creative writing won’t be successful as an engineer or electrician. One of our talented young team leaders actually majored in music. The STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, Mathematics) concept is definitely one that we support.
At all levels of education, companies can do a much better job of expressing the career opportunities that are available. Seeing a day in the life of a process engineer versus a quality engineer, for example, or an electrician versus a tool-and-die maker, can really help students see themselves in these careers. Because they are very exciting places to work.
WardsAuto: Are U.S. manufacturers being forced to look overseas for young talent in engineering, design, management, etc.? Does Denso anticipate a shortage of young talent in coming years? If so, how would this affect Denso’s ability to serve growing global markets?
Boyer: The market for talent continues to be very competitive, but we don’t feel forced to look overseas. Because Denso is a global company, our local engineers and management are working daily with our colleagues in Japan, Europe, China and other facilities around the world. It’s one of the benefits that we emphasize in our recruiting. You may take a position with Denso in Battle Creek, but it is not uncommon to do a rotation in Japan or take a new assignment in another part of the world.
I am very concerned about the nationwide shortage in skilled trades. A large number of our talented journeymen are quickly approaching retirement, and in addition to growing our own internal pipelines of promoting associates into apprenticeships, we are also heavily engaged with the State of Michigan and our local community college partners to increase interest in this really vital career path in manufacturing.
WardsAuto: Discuss the misperceptions young Americans may have about manufacturing. How does Denso counter those misperceptions?
Boyer: I think over time manufacturing has gotten a bad reputation. The people that love and value what the Japanese call “monozukuri,” the art of making things, know that is just a perception issue, a stereotype. We hear from some people that they didn’t realize how many manufacturing jobs were still here in Michigan. Let me tell you, 3,000 people come to work here at Denso in Battle Creek and we ship 134 trucks of finished goods each day. There is definitely manufacturing happening in Michigan! Or, we hear from others that they see manufacturing as dark, dirty work. The best thing we can do for those people is to invite them to visit. Because we have 1.38 million square feet (128,000 sq.-m) that can certainly show that’s not the truth. It’s a really cool place to come to work every day.
To answer your second question, let me tell you about one activity in particular I think really opened our eyes about changing the misperceptions about manufacturing. Last year, one of our local high schools hosted their professional development day here at Denso in Battle Creek. They met professionals from throughout our organization – engineers, skilled-trades journeymen, human-resources professionals, a little bit of everything. Then they took an hour-long tour. And they were shocked at how clean, how organized, how bright our plant is.
And when we shared some of our wages and benefit information, you could see them buzzing about the dozens of students that they know who may not be a good fit in college, who could be starting a lucrative career at 18 or 19 and letting Denso pay for an apprenticeship program or a 4-year degree instead of starting in their mid- to late-20s.
I think getting to those influencers in their life – teachers, school counselors, parents – to get them looking at reality instead of the stereotype. That’s when it's easy to fall in love with manufacturing. To realize you are energized by daily problem-solving and making sure hundreds of trucks are shipping thousands of parts out the door every day. And that people have what they need to do their jobs successfully, because someone is counting on that part – to assemble that new car and to continue to keep its owner safe for years to come. That’s powerful work, important work.
WardsAuto: What attracted you to manufacturing, given your background in other fields? (Boyer joined Denso in 1990 after stints in fashion design and social work.)
Boyer: When you walk out onto the production floor, you can feel the energy. Trucks and parts being moved purposefully around the facility, and people being trained and developed. In manufacturing, you’re building more than parts – you’re building people, careers and communities.