We recently celebrated graduation here at Penn State. The young folks walked around campus in their blue caps and gowns, proud parents in tow, taking pictures of themselves standing in front of every landmark on campus. It was a happy time. This same time last year, I was celebrating the launch of a young career in the wood industry. Carol Chang in fact landed a great job in the furniture industry, and has already had some of her work used in Architectural Digest.

This time around, though, my thoughts have been in a little different place. I've been spending a lot of time recently with companies that are trying to figure out this puzzling economy, and in some cases, how to deal with employee recruitment and retention issues.

If you've been in industry for a while, you know that every time the economy begins to pick up, employee issues flip from having too many (during the downturn) to not having enough (during the upswing). This time around, the "upswing" has been very gradual, and employee-related government regulations are in transition, so the need to rush out and hire has not been pressing.

On Woodworking Education, Employee Loyalty and LifeBut gradually, we're beginning to see the larger companies beginning to "buy" employees from smaller competitors. And in response, companies losing employees are seeking skilled replacements from a seemingly smaller pool of talent.

How can this be, when we read in the news that nearly 102 million working-age Americans are unemployed? If so, surely two or three million out there would be willing to run a CNC machine, drive a forklift, or sell lumber...right? And if so, where are they?

Answers to this question are varied, complex, and difficult to examine without sinking into political discourse. And yet, the problem remains conceptually simple...you want new employees that are well-prepared for their job, will fit in with your organization, and show at least enough loyalty to put in a few good, productive years for your company.

Which is why more companies are turning to our education system for help. More and more, we're seeing efforts of "public/private partnership" undertaken with the hopes that an investment by the private sector in public education will result in the great employees envisioned by that industry's leaders.

On Woodworking Education, Employee Loyalty and LifeWood Educator Dean Mattson & the "Three Amigos"
Which brings me to an excellent and thought-provoking article posted recently on the Woodworking Network. Dean Mattson, the author of the piece, is a high school teacher who not only specializes in cabinet-making classes but was named last year as the "Wooden Globe Educator of the Year" by the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association. He writes of his experiences in the past year dealing with his new fame and the responsibilities that go with it.

But embedded in this inspiring story of a new educational model and its successes are hints of a larger problem...the role of education, its impact on our economy, and on the evolution of our society from a hands-on producer world to a clean-hands consumer world.

The first hint was found in the following paragraph: "Industry thrives on taking risks, being nimble and rewarding innovation. The educational system has succeeded for over 200 years by relying on stability, purposeful planning and tried and true practices. Some of the changes we are trying to implement created a host of philosophical, structural and systematic challenges for an organization as large an unwieldy as public education."

He assures us to not worry, these fundamental differences will eventually be overcome. I'm not so sure.

Mr. Mattson goes on to share with us a great story of three students, the "Three Amigos," who thrived in his program and are now in a position to start their careers. But wait, maybe not...because Oregon State University "has offered them scholarships to help build OSU’s wood program."

It looks for the time being that the Beavers will have to wait, because two of the young men have taken jobs with the industry. Perhaps some day in the near future they'll change their minds and decide that the college life sounds pretty good after all. The third decided to attend another university, desiring to some day "become an attorney employed by the wood industry." We'll see if a few years of higher education change his career ambitions somewhat.

In this nice little tale of the success of three hardworking young men, we see a deeper truth...that the whole world is in competition for them.

The high school woodworking program needed them as raw material to contribute to the success of their program. Similar great programs across the country struggle to lure bright, committed young folks to their technical curriculum against the traditional high-school curriculum leading them to college admission.

The trade schools, colleges, and universities need them, because young bodies mean revenue in their business model. Trade schools at least theoretically lead young folks such as the Three Amigos to careers in their chosen trade. Colleges and universities, to be honest, lure young folks with dreams of something better, dreams that usually include expectations of wealth, authority, and saving the world.

And the companies who invested in their public education, with expectation of the chance to hire them someday? Well, they have the first leg up...but they'll find they have to continue to continually compete for their new recruits' services. The best people always have a chance to move on...and they will. Loyalty to a company, like so many other quaint little things, seems to have become disappearing remnant of the last century's values and morals.

At least in America, people eventually wind up pretty close to what they aspire to be. The best, most naturally skilled woodworkers, forklift operators, clerks, salesmen and supervisors will eventually find their niche in life, regardless of whether they started out with a high-school degree or a PhD.D. in the Greek classics. While we dream of an educational system that produces the perfectly-groomed employee for our businesses, reality lies in Mr. Mattson's paragraph above.

Large, centralized systems at their best tend to stifle creativity and lag market demand by years, even decades. And at their worst, they produce standardized, poorly-motivated citizens who expect a "fair wage", roughly meaning they should be paid the same as their neighbor, regardless of their personal contribution.

Next post, I'll provide some suggestions on what your company can do about this dilemma.

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