Bang for your dues

In the skilled-labour challenge, association value is a two-way street

The lack of young people pursuing the skilled trades, including careers in this industry, is an issue the manufacturing sector has been wrestling with for decades. And there’s still no winning round in sight. With the baby-boomers getting ever-closer to retirement, it’s an issue with which every business owner and association in our industry is wrestling. How well they’re doing that, is the proverbial $64,000 question.

“When you join an association, you should try to get everything out of it that you can,” says Larry Hoffer, the new executive vice-president and executive director of the New Milford, Conn.-based Woodworking Machinery Industry Association (WMIA). “And you can’t just depend on the association to reach out to you. You need to reach out to the association and say, ‘Here’s why I joined; what can you do for me?’”

“At the end of the day, associations have to encourage their members to get involved locally,” affirms Ken Hutton, a former executive vice-president of the Wood Machinery Manufacturers Association (WMMA) who now runs Hutton and Company in Kennett Square, Pa. Hutton helps non-profit groups with strategic planning and interim executive work.

It’s essential for industry associations to be a driving force. “If we’re not meeting our members’ needs, we’re not really doing a very good job of representing our members,” says Jamison Scott, president of the WMMA.

Scott says at the 2015 Wood Industry Conference (WIC) in April, skilled labour was a theme that guest speakers addressed from both economic and labour perspectives. Scott also put together two panels to, “specifically focus on these issues.”

One panel from Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tenn., shared a success story about partnering with a local WMMA member who recognized he would have a need for skilled workers. Motlow offers a program called Mechatronics, which teaches skills in everything from electronics systems to mechanical computer-aided design. It provides “the education needed to help provide the workforce that this member needed,” says Scott. “So sharing that with other members was certainly a great thing.”

ROI is essential

The WMMA also recently reinvigorated its education task force because members affirmed at the WIC that “finding skilled workers is certainly a problem,” says Scott.

The WMMA recognizes the need to be proactive. Not all wood industry associations are, and that’s where the value proposition plays a huge role, says Hutton: “Belonging to a trade association is not what it was decades ago when it was like a club and you got a paid vacation. People are wanting — and demanding — a return on their dues investment dollars, because it is indeed an investment and, like any other business proposition, you’re looking at what that ROI is going to be.”

“Associations are created to address a need, but an association can’t rest on its laurels forever,” says Hoffer, who has spent almost 25 years in association management. “The successful association responds to its members’ needs, but also anticipates members’ needs.”

To understand the wants and needs of their members, industry associations must dissect the demographics of their membership, says Hutton. He says membership crosses lines between distributors and manufacturers, between small, medium and large companies and between younger employees and older baby-boomers who “technologically may be dinosaurs.” Some members may only read something that’s in print; others may only want digital communications. “It’s a daunting task today, to try delivering all that and be receptive to the needs and wants of each of those categories,” Hutton says.

Priority: Communication

Hoffer, Hutton and Scott all say constantly taking the pulse of the membership, and communicating effectively — across all available channels in the digital marketing age — are paramount to providing value for members. Especially when it comes to finding ways of attracting young people to the wood industry.

“How do you expect to attract young people if you’re not doing that?” asks Hutton. “They’re not going to hear about it, and they’re not going to know about it.”

Says the WMMA’s Scott, “In this world of new media, it’s certainly ever-challenging, so we take advantage of every opportunity possible through monthly newsletters, to our annual conference, to our fly-ins, to member-to-member communications, to engaging the social media. We use all the various tools to try to get these messages out there, and try to get them out to as many employees within a member company, as possible.”

Adds the WMIA’s Hoffer, “I’m a big believer in communicating and using every possible medium because you never know what’s going to hit. And you have to communicate as many times as you can.”

All too often, says Hoffer, investing in communication is either the last thing associations think of or the first thing they cut. The usual arguments are that there’s no immediate dollar-for-dollar return, and that there aren’t enough staff or volunteer resources. It can create a Catch-22. Your association may really need you to help spread the word to young people about our industry. But if you’re not getting value from the association for your membership, you’re not going to volunteer to help spread the word. And nobody wins.

Associations tap electronics

For the 2015 WIC, the WMMA developed a smartphone app intended to add value for members. “We scaled back on the printed guide dramatically, and everybody used the app to find out when the next event was coming up, what the scheduled events were and who all the people at the event were,” Scott says.

But the app did much more than that. It engaged the WMMA membership to an extent Scott says he never imagined happening. It became a “phenomenal” networking tool. “We built a selfie contest into it,” he says. “We listed all the sponsors and you had to go out and get a selfie with all the sponsors. It really allowed people to interact with other people they might not have otherwise. It was really great to watch that unfold. The feedback was awesome.”

If an association isn’t doing all these kinds of things, “Well, they’re clearly not using their full potential as an association…and I think they’re definitely selling themselves short. And they’re selling their members short,” says Hoffer.

Collaboration plays a vital role in getting out the word about the many different kinds of opportunities for young people in the wood industry. Partnerships enable associations to have a very powerful voice and they create a win-win for everyone.

“I’ve found there’s much more benefit in working with other associations than in trying to fight them,” affirms Scott. He adds, “I don’t want to go and reinvent the wheel and do something that another association is already doing very well. I’d rather work with them, partner with them and support them, which is what we’re doing.”

Power of cooperation

The WMMA and WMIA, for example, work together to support the Woodwork Career Alliance, and organize the Wood Industry Conference.

In the U.S., seven cross-industry associations are collaborating on the Industrial Careers Pathways (ICP) Initiative, trying to educate young -people about the 21st-century manufacturing industry. ICP has launched a North American-wide initiative encouraging volunteer ICP ambassadors to host facility tours for students. But associations in this country are letting the ICP opportunity slip by them. Although some partners in the ICP have members that are Canadian companies, there are no Canadian associations involved in the ICP.

Hutton says companies and associations alike “need to get into the schools” to help break down outdated stereotypes. “They need to talk to the guidance counsellors. Often, guidance counsellors aren’t aware of what’s out there. So you have adults who are misguided in what they believe is happening, carrying on the myth.”

Industry companies and associations are combatting perceptions created by what young people see on television today. “There’s a university here that I went to that has a great criminal justice program,” says Scott. “Well, the reason the program is doing so well is because of these shows like CSI that put a good light, if you will, on criminal investigations.”

But, “We’ve got more and more TV shows supporting manufacturing,” Scott says.

From 2003 to 2008, John Ratzenberger produced and hosted Made in America on the Travel Channel. He celebrated manufacturing by visiting factories in towns across the U.S. Ratzenberger, famous for his role as mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers, is now developing another new series, John Ratzenberger’s American Made. The actor started a crowdsource funding campaign in 2013 to develop the series. “And you’ve got Ellen DeGeneres on her furniture design challenge. That’s all manufacturing,” says Scott.

He says the local technical high school he works with combats stereotypes by bringing back graduates to talk with students. “They show up in their BMWs. And these kids see and think, ‘Wow, two or three years out of this high school program, and this kid’s driving a BMW?’ Well yes, he is because he’s doing well for himself. So you start to see the opportunities and realities in manufacturing,” says Scott.

Partnerships, proactive initiatives

The associations undertaking them keenly understand they’re vital for ensuring the survival of the wood industry as a whole. They know operating in silos benefits no one. Both Hoffer and Hutton say it all boils down to the thinking at the top of an association.

“To some extent, every association is protective of their own interests and they sometimes view collaboration and partnership as in some way capitulating or giving up something,” says Hoffer. “It’s easier said than done. The key is figuring out the issues that are really ripe for partnership, and then identifying the right partners and being clear about the scope of the partnership.”

Hutton is blunt about the roadblock to association partnerships. “Egos. I think it’s because you have association executives who look at their own silo, their own fiefdom, and they want to protect that,” he says.

Hutton, Hoffer and Scott all believe the role of wood industry associations is going to be — or should be, at least — more important in the years ahead. Hoffer believes more associations need to be more proactive about attracting younger people to the skilled trades. “You need to be thinking about the future of your association, the future of your industry,” he says. “You need to think to yourself, ‘Who is going to lead this association in 10 or 15 years? Where are those future leaders coming from? Where are the members coming from?’”

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  1. Bob St. Cyr says:

    I have just retired from 20 years working in the industry and then 20 years teaching high school wood shop. What many of you might not realize is how little support you are getting from government. The Harris government cut the grade 7 and 8 technology programs. Where were you then? They later reintroduced them but by then the dedicated shop facilities had been converted to regular classrooms and the money to convert them back was not there, so students get their “technology” exposure as part of the science and technology programs. The interests are captured with this age group when they get to actually produce a product and experience the use of tools and manipulation of materials. This is gone. We now have to try and interest a teenager who has never done any hands on in taking our program in high school. There used to be a requirement for students to take at least one technology credit in order to graduate. That was also removed by the Harris government and is still not there. Students must take multiple English, Math, Science credits and can’t graduate without physical education, not that these aren’t important but really what message do students get from the system that says, you can graduate without studying any technology? There is a definite systemic bias. There is also a chicken and egg argument. Administrators will say, well students aren’t choosing those credits so we can’t put money into programs that will be under utilized. Meanwhile the facilities are deteriorating due to underfunding, and without and diploma requirement students see a run down old shop and decide not to take that program. 15 years ago students got a full hands on experience in grade 7 and 8 then arrived at high school with some interest. We then had 5 years to work with students to develop their skills and promote the trades. We now get students with no exposure little interest and only 4 years to work with them. Grade 9 for those students who choose is an exploratory year of a variety of technologies. For those who do decide to go on they now have 3 years of specialized training. This is of course on top of the system, and the media convincing everyone that the only way to get a decent job is to have a university degree. or if that isn’t possible then at least a college education. Don’t get me wrong I apprenticed, went to college, then later got a university degree, but I know that there are many jobs in the woodworking industry that could be filled by students with the training that could be provided by our high schools if the programs were viable. Unfortunately the system has created a situation where students aren’t taking the programs and facilities are being closed down and programs closed. We will be told then that it it too expensive to meet the low demand and just not realistic. This pushes the programs to the colleges where some of the costs are transferred to the student and they then have much higher wage expectations when they get to industry. So you have 2 groups – totally unskilled looking for work – you carry the cost of training for workers who may or may not hang around for you to recoup your costs, or college educated with high wage expectations and a level of training similar to what used to come out of our high schools. The government pays lip service to supporting technology education but is in reality ensuring that it is removed from the high schools. You guys really need to get on board if you are going to do anything about this. About 10 years ago I tried to start an industry partner group for our board. I contacted over 100 woodworking shops that had employees making cabinets and/or furniture. When I had an evening information session 5 of them showed up! Now you’re surprised by lack of anyone with any interest or training? You’ve seen it coming for a long time and done little. You’re getting the results of your own inaction.

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