Remarks at the White House

Remarks at the White House
John “Ance” Damoose
October 21, 2015

Good afternoon and thank you for setting up such a terrific event at the White House. As a bit of background, I run a new organization called Building America’s Tomorrow that was founded by Dr. David Cole of the University of Michigan, former CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan – right in the heart of American manufacturing. Building America’s Tomorrow is an organization dedicated to helping to rebuild America’s manufacturing workforce pipeline.

We operate on a number of fronts to do this; first, obviously, we work in schools where the goal is to inspire kids to at least take an honest look at manufacturing careers. Second, and arguably more important, we are working on the public front to begin to “change the narrative” related to manufacturing.

Sadly, as most of you know all too well, the vast majority of Americans view manufacturing through the lens of those old black and white films of heavy industry with mostly men doing hard labor jobs in dirty, dangerous and dull environments.
We forget that, at the time, those were great jobs, with people doing heroic things: building the most powerful economy the world has ever seen, creating the middle class, supporting millions of families and businesses from coast to coast. Our manufacturing prowess in the 20th century formed the “Arsenal of Democracy” – a fact of which we in Detroit are very proud.

It wasn’t just the products, but the industry itself that changed the way Americans live and work. The automobile industry gave us the often cited “5 dollar a day wage,” and the “five day work week.” It was great stuff.

But, in our modern world, we tend to forget the greatness and see only the hardships that came with manufacturing jobs. And to modern kids, faced with the allure of technology fields, the image of Wall Street success stories, dreams of “making it big” in music, sports or entertainment, or even just going into jobs that are seen as “respectable” white collar jobs, many kids today view manufacturing only as something to do when you “strike out” at everything else.

Even 25 years ago, when I graduated from high school, the “vocational tech” kids were seen as “second class students” – they sort of “disappeared” in the afternoons to go learn wherever “those kids” went to learn. That may be why my family ended up spending upwards of $100,000 so I could study Political Science – something I was passionate about but that does not necessarily lead to a productive career.

And even worse, too often today when a kid does find an interest in “making things” and begins to think about manufacturing as a viable career path, they go home and their mom or dad says “Not my son! Not my daughter!”

The perception problem runs even deeper than that. A central part of Building America’s Tomorrow is to build a Grand Coalition of businesses, organizations, schools and individuals to begin to “chip away” at this negative image that has developed around manufacturing. One of our key partners is an organization that everyone in this room would know if I mentioned their name.

We were recently talking to the head of their educational outreach program which is widely noted as one of the best STEM curriculum programs in the entire country. That leader recently testified before Congress on STEM education, and he told me that when he was preparing his remarks, the group went through and intentionally struck out the word “manufacturing” every time it appeared. He said “it’s become a dirty word.”

I thought, “of all the groups out there, if this group can’t even use the word ‘manufacturing,’ we’re in real trouble in this country.” If you knew who it was who said that, you’d all agree with me.

We believe this image crisis is something to be addressed head on – both from the standpoint of maintaining our economic viability in the future, and from the standpoint that it is just plain “the right thing to do.”

I’m not sure at what point in this country we began to value those who sit at desks more than those who work with their hands, but it is wrong thinking. Every single kid in this world is called to something – some to wrestle with ideas, some to play the sports, some to build the things that we all rely upon in our everyday lives. All are important, and we’ve got to get back to the idea where there is “HONOR” in making things.

A quick story: My oldest daughter just graduated from high school in June. She’s a smart kid who did extremely well in all of her classes. As many schools do, our small town high school had an “Honors Night,” where all the kids sat on stage and many of them were singled out for their achievements. Like so many schools, most of the honors went to kids for success in either sports or purely academic subjects.

Now, since my daughter had done well in school in terms of grades, she was sitting towards the front of the class, right next to two other high performing students. At some point in the evening, another kid was announced for an award related to “tech-ed” for his achievement in woodworking. I watched in sheer disappointment as those two other students visibly sneered and mocked him as he got his award.

Afterwards, I told my daughter that I was proud of her grades, but I was most proud that she was not the type to ever laugh at someone like that. Her response to me was even better – she said “Daddy, why would I laugh? That kid built the coolest chair with all these working parts and things.” Needless to say, as a father, I was even prouder.

But the point remains, we have got to begin to lift these kids up – to show them that it is not only respectable to be involved in making things, but that our country NEEDS people to be involved in manufacturing – that there are GREAT careers available in manufacturing – that manufacturing is NOT a dirty word – and that the nature of modern manufacturing isn’t what people might expect.

Sure, some of these jobs are tough. But manufacturing as a whole today offers high-tech, stimulating careers in some of the most beautiful and invigorating settings one can find anywhere. And, the fact is, they pay on average at least 17% more than careers in other fields.

The auto industry has been hit particularly hard in terms of image, and we’re sensitive to that being from Detroit and because our organization – Building America’s Tomorrow – has been funded primarily by General Motors so far. General Motors has really taken the lead on a lot of these STEM and manufacturing-related efforts because they can see what lies on the horizon if we don’t take this type of education seriously.

If you walk through a General Motors plant today – as we’ve done countless times filming for an upcoming documentary – you’ll find some of the most sophisticated machinery on the planet. And if you talk to the workers there – from the plant managers to the men and women on the line – you’ll find some of the most inspired workers in the world. These people are proud of what they do. They believe they are involved in something bigger than themselves. To a person, they’ve told me about how they feel pride when they see one of their vehicles driving down the road – they say “I helped build that car.” They know what they are doing is important – it’s a much different picture than we often see of the “embittered, downtrodden auto worker.”

So, what are we planning to do about this? Well, part of the answer is – nothing that you all aren’t already doing. Building America’s Tomorrow was developed on the concept that we do not want to “reinvent the wheel.” There are great programs out there, and our intent is to add scale to these programs by getting people to work together, by enhancing the existing curricula with more overt manufacturing messages, and by broadening the reach of these various programs through great marketing efforts and getting them into more schools and more communities than ever before. Our goal is really to work on the “demand side” as much as we can – paving the way for you and these other groups to come in with the excellent teaching materials that you already have in place.

As we’ve said so many times before, the world doesn’t need another organization to develop a 3D printer project for schools, they need someone to help those who have already done it better than we could to get these programs in more schools and inspire more people to use them.

I can tell you that, as a non-profit organization, this is sometimes a “tough sell.” Even our own biggest sponsor, General Motors, told us early on that they don’t want us to become a “third party reseller” of other people’s work. They said that if they wanted to support some of these other programs, they’d support them directly and not work with us.

BUT, having been out there for a while now, we see the need more and more every day to partner with organizations and, with an open hand, help expand what they are doing since we are all “in this battle together.” The fact is, we need a few “third parties” out there to help make all the other programs better – like those great old commercials for BASF – “We don’t make a lot of the things you buy, we make a lot of the things you buy better.”

A quick illustration on this point: we recently met with two of the premier organizations working in this field of STEM and manufacturing education – both with long histories – both organizations over 100 years old. One explained to me that they are strong with programs in K-8th grade, and even stronger at the college level, but they need some help reaching high school students.

In another meeting a week later with the other organization, they told us – unsolicited – “they have great programs in high schools, but not much in the lower grade levels to prepare the kids for the high school curriculum!” These two organizations are headquartered in the same town, working in the same industries, sharing the same goals – and they don’t talk to each other. We want to help fix that.

I know this happens for a variety of reasons, some of them structural. Often an organization needs to have an entire program in-house with a beginning, middle and an end in order to make a compelling case for funding. Sponsors and donors want “measureables” that can be attached directly to their investment, and that’s harder to show when the work and the credit is spread among several organizations.

But some of the problem stems from a simple lack of vision and an understanding that we will go a lot further in solving this problem by working together than we will by operating as free agents. And, everywhere we go, we are finding that while it is a new model for them, many of these organizations seem to rally to the idea of partnership when it’s presented to them.

The other part of the Building America’s Tomorrow program is that when we find gaps – particularly in matters related to the image of manufacturing – we will produce new content and do new things that do not already exist, and then open it up and adapt it so that other organizations can use them as their own.

The centerpiece of that effort for now is a one-hour television special we are producing on the nature of modern manufacturing and the “Call to Rebuild Our Manufacturing Workforce.” We call it “The Engine of Democracy,” but that’s just a working title. The point is to show in vivid detail the incredible range of careers available in manufacturing throughout the country, and the amazing array of disciplines involved in “making things.” Manufacturing isn’t just the man or woman standing on the line of an automobile assembly plant – it’s everything involved in the process of designing, making and distributing great American products.

The film will also explore just how important manufacturing jobs really are to our economy. This group doesn’t need a bunch of statistics – you know the story well. We all hear statistics like this: “of the 1.75 billion cell phones manufactured in the world in 2012, not one was built in America.”

But more than anything, these types of statistics reveal a real opportunity for today’s kids. At this very moment, there are as many as 600,000 manufacturing positions that can’t be filled in the US because the skilled workforce just isn’t there – and that that number may be as high as 2 million in just a few years. Lesser known, but still incredibly important, according to the Center for Automotive Research, the “job multiplier” for that coveted Wall Street job is less than 2, but the number of jobs supported by one job at an automotive assembly plant is closer to 10.

So, “telling the story” is important.

We are also working on a number of targeted educational films for classroom use that are going to help change what kids and their parents think about manufacturing. I can go into detail on these projects at another time, but the one I’m most excited about is called “When Am I EVER Going to Use This?” which will be made available to math teachers around the country to help them answer the question that every math student in the history of mankind has wondered.

We have some unique ideas on how to engage the culture in this effort to change the narrative on manufacturing, and I know the people in this room have even better programs and ideas to accomplish this mission.

But the real point is that it is time for us as a nation to begin to take this workforce development crisis seriously, because with the exit of the boomers, we just do not have the next generation manufacturing workforce lined up like we used to, and this could have grave consequences for our economy, our security, and our well being as a nation long into the future.