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U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided some advice and engaged with manufacturers during a recent South Florida visit.
SFBW was the exclusive media invitee as Ross met with members of the South Florida Manufacturers Association at Dyplast Products’ Opa-locka plant, which makes sheet insulation, composite foam cores and specialized products that can insulate cryogenic pipes that can be 250 degrees below zero.
Ross has insights about manufacturing and the challenges it faces from his previous investments in steel, textiles, automotive components and coal. Ross also is familiar with South Florida, since he has a home in Palm Beach.
In his opening remarks, Ross applauded Dyplast for winning a 2018 Florida Sterling Manufacturing Business Excellence Award. Ross suggested the company apply for the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award as well.
Ross talked about how President Donald Trump’s administration has placed a high priority on enhancing U.S. manufacturing. Since his inauguration, the country has added almost 500,000 manufacturing jobs, the largest increase in two decades, Ross said. Florida has added 18,000 manufacturing jobs over the past two years and employs 377,000 in the sector.
The SFMA estimates there are 5,000 manufacturers in South Florida.
Ross suggested manufacturers and other businesses might want to consider investing in one of Florida’s 427 opportunity zones, which help depressed areas and offer substantial breaks on capital gains taxes.
In another initiative, Ross and Ivanka Trump are co-chairing the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, which will help the administration develop job training programs and bridge skills gaps. The CEOs of Apple, IBM, Walmart, Siemens America, Visa and Home Depot are among those serving on the board, according to CNBC.
One reason for the skills gaps is that the United States is way behind other countries, particularly those in Europe, when it comes to apprenticeship programs, Ross said. He suggested employers work with local education institutions, particularly community colleges, to develop training programs. Another concept is enlisting unions to create certification programs. The certifications would give a sense of career pride and help reduce the stigma that some face when they don’t go to college, he said.
Some community colleges even bring portable training centers to worksites so workers don’t have to commute to a school, Ross said.
Manufacturers should also invite more parents and their children to tour factories to show they aren’t dark, dank, smelly places to work, he said. “Show it’s a clean and happy place—not a bad place for young people to spend time.”
Ted Berglund, Dyplast’s president and CEO, said improvement in secondary education is needed as well. “We have people who come in who don’t know how many inches are in a foot.”
Berglund said Dyplast is trying to do its part by mentoring the robotics teams at Rockway Middle School, a magnet school with programs in robotics/engineering and legal studies. Two of the three robotics teams earned a spot at the Create Foundations U.S. Open Robotics Championship. One placed second in the Florida finals and gained a berth in the world championship.
In many markets, educators are not particularly in favor of vocational training, Ross said. “For the life of me, I don’t understand it,” he said.
One panelist said the situation is so skewed that some guidance counselors’ reviews are based on how many of their students go to college.
There seemed to be general agreement among panelists that kindergarten-grade 12 schools are not providing the amount of vocational training, such as shop classes, that they once did. Budget cuts may have played a major role.
When he went to school, “nobody looked down on the kid who took shop class. They had everybody take shop class,” Ross said. “Kids not heading on the college route would take more of it and kids heading in different academic direction would take less of it. I think it would be wonderful to get back to that.”
The reality, though, is manufacturers often are struggling to fill the educational gaps.
Some of the manufacturers said they could use help in developing curriculum. Ross said one of the administration’s goals is to find the best curricula and roll it out across multiple industries. For example, many industries could use well-trained welders.
A couple of manufacturers mentioned the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council, a nonprofit organization that provides certifications for forklift technicians, production technicians and logistics technicians. (A map at msscusa.org indicates there are 14 MSSC centers in South Florida, most notably at the region’s three community colleges.)
Yamilet Ramirez, VP of HR at Dyplast, said the Job Corps has good training programs and maybe that could be expanded to more careers.
The Jobs Corps Center in Miami Gardens includes dorms and offers free training for 16- to 24-year-olds in the fields of facility maintenance, carpentry, painting, office administration, culinary arts, nurse assistants and computer technicians.
Ross also suggested businesses look at partnering with Boys and Girls Clubs, especially in the field of soft skills.
Another challenge is just letting students know about different types of careers.
Christine Battles, chief administration officer at Advanced Mechanical Enterprises, spoke about how her company collaborated with others in the marine industry to have a storefront at Junior Achievement of South Florida in Coconut Creek. Students spend a half-day at BizTown, performing tasks associated with different types of businesses and personal finance.
“So, now 50,000 students a year just in eighth grade will realize the marine industry exists,” Battles said.
Irene Revelas, CEO at the nonprofit Hacklab, also said she would like to see more inclusion of smaller companies in CareerSource Florida programs since many larger employers long have been entrenched.
Ross suggested small businesses could also look to major businesses for training help, saying many are eager to help because they rely on products from small manufacturers.
The SFMA Workforce Readiness Task Force is also looking at vetted certification programs that could help members. Power industrial truck skills and measurement skills would work for an array of manufacturers.
Near the end of the discussion, panelists brought up issues about tariffs that are hurting business.
“That’s a problem we inherited,” Ross said. “Very few people understand how we got in that predicament.”
After World War II, he explained, U.S. policy was to help rebuild Europe and Asia so it made unilateral trade concessions. The mistake, in his opinion, was not setting a time limit and then letting them be locked in via the World Trade Organization.
Noting that China is now the world’s second-largest economy, Ross said, “We are giving to China the same concessions they got in 1950. It makes no sense whatsoever.” ♦
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