Workforce Development

There are many reasons why we all need to invest more in human capital, especially in the heat treating industry.

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How many times have we heard, “Our company is only as good as our people.” Yet more often than not, the majority of the today’s business conversations are centered around hard initiatives — new technologies, new systems, new production lines, new equipment, or learning to leverage the Internet of Things (IoT). What about new and improved human capital?

As a small-business owner, I know the value of my human capital. Closely tied to every employee, I “feel it” when someone does not show up for work, struggles on a new production job, or is a bit off their game. I see it in the numbers and know when something is off kilter. Years of reinvesting in improved equipment, production time studies, and endless employee training, I’ve found the human part of my operations is the difference between average and outstanding. And in the hyper-competitive world of challenging jobs, average just won’t do.

Back in the 1960s, economist Theodore Schultz invented the term “human capital” to reflect the value of human capacities. He believed human capital was like any other type of hard capital — something to be invested in through continuous education, training, team building, and other enhanced benefits that would directly lead to improvement in manufacturing quality, production output, and competitiveness. In business terms, human capital is a measure of the economic value of an employee’s skill set. If we could capture and repeat the basic production input of labor, where all labor is equal (think repetitive assembly line), we could more easily predict outcomes. Yet the concept of human capital recognizes that not all labor is equal, or always predictable, and must be constantly nurtured and improved upon by investing in education, experience measures, training, team building, results, and rewards.

Too often, systems are put into place with the express purpose of improving quality, reliability, and performance, and unfortunately we forget, or simply ignore, human innovation. As business owners and leaders, we need to foster an environment that enables all of us to ask questions, such as “what happens if” or “why can’t we.” We all need to continually reinvest in the workforce to keep the shop floor, and balance sheet, humming. Our best technology investments can be flattened if we don’t keep investing in our human capital.

Here in Cleveland, we are rapidly coming to the end of summer, the Indians are in first place, and some of my younger folks will be heading back to school. Part of me worries that so much of their energy won’t have the proper guidance upon graduation. Studies show U.S. schools are graduating less than 5,000 material science engineers per year, but over 25,000 mechanical engineers. Where will all of these young people find the answers to problems they are tasked to solve? Who will take the time to mentor them? Most importantly, how will they even know what questions to ask? And how can we ensure human capital success?

One option is technical societies. As the current president of the ASM – Heat Treating Society (HTS), I can attest to the valuable efforts being made to capture the collective knowledge of HTS members. The Society offers a venue for workers to network with our experts, share insights, and build lifelong friendships. HTS members also serve as mentors to young academicians, engineers, and practitioners, laying the foundation for future generations.  Participation in the Society affords the opportunity to both share and gain knowledge at no additional cost. HTS is also working to develop collaborative relationships with other organizations to retain and expand the extensive knowledge base needed to assist the rapidly changing workplace. Learn more at www.asminternational.org.

So what does all this training and sharing have to do with lean manufacturing, the Internet of Things, LPC processing, automation, and root and pitch dimensions? Actually, it’s quite simple. Without talented, engaged, highly skilled, and trained employees, all of the automation and technology investments will be meaningless without dedicated employees to carry them forward. Together, we must constantly encourage, enable, and cajole the industry to continually improve — one second, one inch, one degree at a time. This is where and how the quantum leaps of improvement will most likely occur. Our people are, and will continue to be, the next big thing.