Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network Podcast. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Jim Ver Woert. Jim is an enterprise solutions executive with tooling-U SME, a Society of Manufacturing Engineers division. Jim travels the country and collaborates with world-class manufacturers to develop workforce performance and training solutions. Jim, welcome to the show.
Jim Ver Woert: Thanks so much, Lisa. It's a pleasure to be here. So share a little bit about your background and what ultimately led you to Tooling-U SME.
Jim Ver Woert: Sure. I began my career in manufacturing, working for a very small industrial distributor out of Moline, Illinois. Unfortunately, they're no longer in business.
They've been acquired like many industrial distributors have in the past. The company was called Deion Thompson, and my territory was central and Western Iowa. So the John Deeres, the Vermeer, and the Scour Dan Fosse, Dan FSEs of the world in my territory, and we supplied metal cutting tools and metalworking fluids to our customers.
And it was interesting because this is, coming up 15 years ago, I would get the questions like, "Hey, Jim, do you know any good lathe operators? Do you know any good mill operators? Do you know any good welders?" And my answer was always the same back then, "I do know some of those people, but they already have a job."
So even back then, I saw a significant need for a skilled workforce because help was hard to find. So along comes at the time Tooling University. As a workforce training and development tool, our company's management connected us with Tooling University. And that was one of them. I called bullets in my holster.
It was one of the lines we represented, and it was a great marriage because of that tremendous need I kept seeing. Fast forward to about six and a half years ago. ToolingU SME had since been acquired by SME, this Society of Manufacturing Engineers. About six and a half years ago, they gave me a phone call, and here I am today and happy to do it because that need is as prevalent as it was 10, 15 years ago out in the middle of the cornfield of Iowa. I see it everywhere. I go coast to coast and border to border.
Lisa Ryan: Yeah. And that's, it's such a huge aspect right now because you look at not only have we had the pandemic for the last, two and a half - 10 years is what it feels like. We had lots of baby boomers retiring beforehand. But now, there's even more of a mass exodus as we reassess our priorities. People are thinking, do I really want to end my career, or keep doing what I'm doing, or do I want to go and play with my grandkids and enjoy the rest of my life?
So I'm sure you see that from both a training and an employee attraction standpoint, but let's talk first about how you see manufacturers retain that brilliance - the industry knowledge, the expertise, the skills that are walking out the door so that the next generation of workers can get a jumpstart.
Jim Ver Woert: Great question. They are doing everything they can to retain them. But like you said to the worker, that's been, on the floor or in the office, 25, 30, 35 years. They're ready to play with their grandson and go fishing off into the sunset of retirement. Some of those employers don't retain them completely, but they will have them come back on a part-time basis as consultants.
So they will retire yet have a gentleman's agreement, if you will, that, Hey, if we get in a pickle on the floor, and Bill was the only one that knew how to finish this part or to run this machine or to fix this machine when it went down, please be on call, and you'll agree to come in and help us out.
Lisa Ryan: When we look at the flexibility, that is an expectation of employees too. We look at flexibility from younger workers coming in. That sounds like such a great way to take advantage of our more tenured employees, our skilled employees still keeping them relevant while giving them some money. But then again, addressing their need for spending time outside of work. So do you have examples or specific stories where you've seen that work?
Jim Ver Woert: Yeah, I have one, I won't mention the name, but they're down the road from me here. They, I call it the Monday morning factor. They offered a bunch of early retirements because COVID really put into warp speed. A lot of these practices gave employees early retirement. Let's cut the budget. Back then, no one knew what was happening and then what the long-term effects were going to be.
But they found out one of the immediate effects. They had let the wrong person go on Friday. And literally, on Monday morning, they were standing there trying to figure something out. Nobody knew how to do it because the person that knew how to do it was already retired. So that's, that's just the reality that we went through.
Now, one thing that we have started helping customers with is, first of all, raising that awareness. And look at your pipeline of your employees. And look at that retirement pipeline - who's coming up in the next six months, year, two years? What is their skill set? What do they do? Are they in that a department of ten people that all do the same one person with that specific tribal knowledge that's getting ready to retire?
But I've literally gotten those phone calls three or four years later. Hey, Jim, we got so and so retiring at the end of October. Can you folks get in here and help us capture as much as possible from this person before they walk out the door?
Lisa Ryan: And it makes them feel relevant regarding the knowledge they're bringing, but then they're, you're really cutting down the learning. From the people coming up who don't necessarily know the history of why that job is being done that way, they're getting to hear it from an expert.
Jim Ver Woert: Absolutely. You just hit on a very critical point - the whys behind something. We do so many things in our daily lives that become second nature. But, not knowing the whys behind things, why are we approaching this part at this certain entry angle? Why are we changing the tool at this point and not going another ten parts, all these things? And that's something that can get lost in a black-and-white world. There's AI. Robots and all these things are fantastic, but there's still that human element.
Some parts are just irreplaceable until you do that mentoring or that one-on-one O J T or that training of the whys and the tribal knowledge to fully comprehend and understand and be able to produce a good part and continue.
Lisa Ryan: So mentoring is another big area to do that where you're putting together your tenured employees and maybe your new kids on the block coming in and have them build those relationships and learn from each other. There could also be some reverse mentoring going on, with the younger folks being able to share their thoughts about technology and apps and the things that they're seeing. So again, let's look at and talk about mentoring for a couple of minutes. What are some of the best practices that you are seeing manufacturers do?
Jim Ver Woert: Yeah, that's a great question. And you hit on a great point, too, that multi-generational mentoring, there's sometimes the more seasoned workforce, if you will, is not as familiar with technology as the younger workforce is. And if they could learn just a few little tricks or implement just a few things and apply them to their job, it would make their job much easier, faster, and quicker.
But they've never had anybody they've been able to talk to and develop a relationship with. And the same goes the other way where, the whys, why do I have to manually do this when I can just punch a couple of numbers on my phone or punch a couple of numbers here?
Certain things must be done a certain way to explain that and develop those mentoring relationships. And not only that, it's a passing of the guard, if you will. It's cultural, on a more personal level, to develop that sense of pride and that sense of workmanship and craftsmanship that so many of our seasoned workforce have developed. I call it the good old American know-how.
Let's try to try to define that in one sentence. There are examples all across the country. I'll never forget one time, in my former job, there was a foundry that I called on. They made castings for the aerospace industry and the US military, and the guy kept telling me these are handcrafted castings. And I was like, what do you mean? What do you mean they're handcrafted? So he said they poured the castings and cut off the risers and the gate. So they do all this stuff but then take it to their shop. And by hand, they sand it here, and they sand it there, and they do this, and they do that.
And then, there are different kinds of wood and various places in the castings and all these processes that took years, if not decades, to perfect. And that has to be a mentoring environment to pass that kind of craftsmanship onto the next generation.
Lisa Ryan: And it works when that person shares the passion for it. You could hear that passion coming through just in you relating that story. It's castings, for goodness sake, but there was so much pride in what went into that process that a newer worker is coming when somebody is mentoring. And conveying some of that, listen, I've done this.
You can do it too, and it will not happen overnight. So we will work together, and I will try to shortcut the process but let you experience some of that success. I think that too many times in manufacturing, we don't give people enough. Enough credit for their pride and what they do because they're pieces, parts, and components.
We think they're doing the same thing every day, but it's magic when you find the right people, and they love what they do.
Jim Ver Woert: It really is. And it becomes a family. I'll never forget a shop on the west side of Des Moines that I used to visit. This was a group of guys and gals whose number one goal was to be able to do things that all the other shops in the area could not. That was the work they wanted so that they could carry that banner higher than anybody else.
And pat themselves on the back and fist pump and high-five each other at the end of the day. And it was a magical place to be in sometimes because when they got the secret sauce and cracked the code, I tell you what it was. So it was quite a special moment.
Lisa Ryan: Yeah. And that's the thing, and you can feel culture. You can walk into any plant just by walking there and feeling the energy. Do people like working here? Do they not like working there? So not only from a customer standpoint but if you're interviewing applicants with a culture that doesn't feel good, there's no way they're accepting your job offer.
Jim Ver Woert: Exactly. Exactly. And people pick up on that. People pick up on that.
Lisa Ryan: So we've talked a lot about the more tenured workforce and the fact that we're losing them. But we also have to look at the opposite end of the scale of attracting more people into manufacturing, changing the conversations so that parents, guidance counselors, and the public generally realize what a great career path is.
So when it comes to the training solutions, what do you see that world-class manufacturers are doing? What are some of the things that they're implementing?
Jim Ver Woert: Yeah. Great question and great point. You mentioned parents and guidance counselors. That's precisely where it was at another large aviation company. The vice president said, if we don't get them at the junior high level or before, we've already lost them, and that's just critical, and it's literally retraining our culture.
Here in the United States, and with all due respect to college graduates, that's great. We need them, but I think everybody could agree that not every single person that's drawn a breath of air is queued up and ready and a good fit to go to a four-year college. So just being able to give them options and letting them see different career pathways at an early age is critical.
I sit on a board at a local high school with a great shop. They have about eight welding booths. They have a lay of the mill and a plasma cutting table. And when I go to those meetings a couple of times a year to listen to those instructors, talk about their students and the things that excite those students where they got their first small 3d printer.
And they let them pick whatever they wanted to print, like a small airplane or a small guitar pick or whatever their passion was, go ahead and do that. And boy, those kids were walking up and down the hallways of the school, showing them off to all their friends, saying, Hey look, what I made I had, of course, had to program it, had to get the machine set and do all these things. It really energized him. I think it's that energy, that spirit we were talking about before. Capturing that and generating that in the younger generation is essential. Because again, and excuse me if I'm going on and on. I remember going to Southern Wisconsin for training in my former job and hearing about all the shop classes, high schools, and community colleges closing left and right. And that's such a heavy German, industrial part of the country. So many German tool companies are headquartered there in the Milwaukee area. And to hear that it's just really a cultural blow to our country.
So I think the good news is you're doing things like this. Those conversations are happening. There are people like Mike Rowe talking out there on a higher, even bigger stage, maybe just raising this awareness and engaging anybody and everybody that'll listen. We need manufacturing for security, safety, and services that our people are accustomed to.
Lisa Ryan: Yeah. In high school, I took both wood shop and metal shop. Primarily because I didn't want to take home EC, it was just fun, and you're right. And then, for years, all those programs disappeared, and it is so nice to see them returning. Our community college here in Cleveland, Cuyahoga Community College, has a whole manufacturing technology Center.
We're starting to see the schools that are opening up. But, still, you made a significant point that if you don't get them by junior high, you've lost them because that's the generation that's coming into the workforce now that by the time they graduate high school, they already have an idea of what they're going to do.
So using things like manufacturing day, the first Friday in October, and trying to get into the schools talking to people, talking to parents, doing plant tours. I was just at a facility a couple of weeks ago. And when I was pulling into the parking lot, they had all of their signs, join our team, great hours, great work culture. And the thing that, of all the signs, the one that gets the most action is, "work with your hands." So they have a billboard that says if you want to work with your hands, join us. Because there's something that immediate gratification of being able to create something of being able to see, this is what I made. And you're right. Why go to a four-year college if you're not cut out for it and come out with all that student loan debt and flip burgers?
Jim Ver Woert: Can I share some stories from the road?
Lisa Ryan: Absolutely.
Jim Ver Woert: To highlight this. And again, it's to, to no fault of their own. I always joked about myself when I started in this industry. I didn't know the difference between an end mill and a windmill. Cause you don't know what you don't know. And it's not your fault. But I'll never forget. I drove through South Carolina four years ago and listened to one of the local radio stations. The University of South Carolina studied high school students in the state and concluded that around 80% of high school students did not know how to change a light bulb. Why? Because they've never had to do it before. I'm sure their parents love them dearly. I'm sure they would do anything for them, but I think sometimes parents might do a little too much for children.
Go ahead. How do you think we should change that light bulb? What do you think? Maybe turn it off. Let it cool down for a little bit. So when you touch it, it's not hot going back to some of that tribal knowledge to some of that mentoring, you know why you have to do this. So there's one story.
The other story is that I got this in many places. One of the first things they would do when they were looking to hire an applicant is to give them a tape measure and ask them, "Show me five and three quarters." They didn't. They had no idea what they were saying because they'd never held to take measure in their entire life.
And the last one was the screwdrivers. They had some new maintenance, younger people, and they were talking amongst themselves, and they said, oh, that's not the minus. That's the plus screwdriver. Wow. That's a description for Flathead and Phillips.
Lisa Ryan: Wow. That just highlights what we were talking about earlier - the need and opportunity ahead of us. The good news is that the only place we can go is up now.
It's just so funny you say that because my dad had his wood shop in the basement while I was growing up. I can't tell you how many hours down there. I'd be down there watching him look at the tool, work with the tools, and stuff like that. And just things that you take for granted.
I had one of the guests on my show a while ago, Miranda Martz, who I actually met at ToolingU. Her dad fixed cars, and she would go and watch her dad, and fix cars along with him. And just that little thing is what decided her whole career. So that's a thing. Maybe parents aren't necessarily changing their oil and stuff, but getting your kids involved in your hobbies, what you're passionate about, looking for ways to introduce them, changing a tire. Now, mind you, I know how to change a tire. I just have AAA. So I choose not to.
I think about light bulbs. It's like these things blow out once every ten years. So none of us are really changing light bulbs that often. But it's the point of just knowing the necessities and exposing kids at as young of an age as possible because there's going to be a small percentage of them that are going to say, that's what I want to do.
Jim Ver Woert: I will say the good news is the, I think, what is it, the gen Z this latest generation is taking the bull by the horn. There's some really good interest being generated. So maybe we're already generating some interest and lighten that spark and thank the good Lord that's happening because manufacturing is so important and critical to our country. Especially in this day and age, you don't want to depend on other countries.
I won't name any names for things that are just important, medicine, food, shelter, energy. There's so much that goes into us. Just being able to live a good life comes from the manufacturing industry. I'll never forget one of the best t-shirts I saw "And on the eighth day, God created tool and die makers."
There you go, just let that set and sizzle for