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  • Career Choice, Popular Culture, Design, and Manufacturing

    Posted by David Foster on August 13th, 2011 (All posts by )

    Kathleen Fasanella, who runs the interesting blog Fashion Incubator, observes that the tv program “Project Runway” has led many people to pursue careers as designers–and that this is not the first time that such a phenomenon has occurred:

    I’m troubled by the consequences of the fashion school bubble -350 designers at NY Fashion Week being but one sign of it- the blame for which we mostly attribute to Project Runway. A similar thing happened with the TV show LA Law, law schools were inundated with applicants and our legal system is burgeoning with excessive lawsuits as the logical consequence of lawyers needing to make their student loan payments. Simplistically speaking, these are trend careers.

    Indeed, for young people who are making career choices there is a shortage of solid information about what various careers are really like and what they require in the way of preparation. Television tends to focus on a few specific fields–lawyers, doctors, nurses, cops, criminals–with occasional excursions into other areas like fashion design–but rarely provides any realistic sense of what day-to-day life in these jobs ight be like. This is understandable–screenwriter Robert Avrech oberved that movies are like real life, except that the boring parts are deleted–but means that these shows aren’t exactly reliable guides to career choice. High school guidance counselors rarely have any broad exposure to the world of actual work. College professors, even with the best will in the world, will tend to sell and perhaps oversell their own fields to talented students. Parents may or may not be useful sources of career information, depending on their own backgrounds and current situations; many will also have strong prejudices for or against certain fields.

    Kathleen also observes that in her industry there is a real gap between the numbers of people who want to design the product and the numbers of people who want to have something to do with turning it into physical reality:


    Let me lay it for you. In order for a person to have a full time job as a designer -meaning an employee, not someone who also has entrepreneurial duties- there needs to be a given number of personnel to support that position. Based on my experience, you only need one designer for every 75-150 stitchers. Anything less than that, the designer has cross duties he or she is not happy about. However, we have a crisis in the industry in that we can’t find enough stitchers to fill demand -at least domestically. The short answer is, if we can’t get people in front of machines, we can’t hire any more designers.

    In another post, Kathleen writes:

    The M word -judging from what you read in many forums on the web- is a really naughty word and maybe even NSFW. Yes, that word is manufacturing. I hate to break the news but if you make stuff and sell it, no matter how large or how small you are, you are a manufacturer -legally!- no matter how much you dislike it. I don’t mean this unkindly but it’s hypocritical to complain you can’t buy made in the USA products anymore because who would want to do it when everyone decries manufacturing as an awful horrible thing? I once stood next to a woman in a store who complained nothing was made in the USA and when I said I worked in US manufacturing, she sneered at me and said “sweatshop”.

    I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a cultural prejudice against manufacturing in the U.S. today– although it may now be weakening somewhat as a result of the economic crisis–and that this has had a malign effect on the industry and on the economy as a whole. See my post faux manufacturing nostalgia for more on this.

     

    26 Responses to “Career Choice, Popular Culture, Design, and Manufacturing”

    1. Mitch Says:

      What a pity we will never see a TV show featuring accountants or engineers. Say what you like, but students with those degrees will likely be able to repay their loans.

    2. onparkstreet Says:

      We need to write our own books and stories about manufacturing – or other CBz areas of interest – then….

      Great post.

      I’ve been mulling over a “50 or 250 Short Story Friday’s” here at the blog with the themes to include stories about manufacturing, small business, etc. I used to participate in these when short storie blogging was more my thing.

      Why not? You never know what will catch the fancy of the public and why should we concede the public square?

      Or, a Post-Secret like Friday contest but with themes more related to liberty, freedom of markets, that sort of thing.

      - Madhu

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Some of the novels of John P Marquand were about manufacturing. My favorite, although he wrote with a faintly sneering tone, was “Sincerely Willis Wayde.” You can’t find it anymore but it had quite a lot about manufacturing in the late 1920s to the 1950s. Neville Shute, of course, is the engineer’s novelist. I don’t think it a coincidence that these books were written before 1960. One of the causes of the death of the US auto industry was the assumption of control by financial people who pushed aside the engineers who loved cars. I saw a post on this just the other day on an auto blog. Ford was one big victim of this trend. Another was Xerox. The financial people ended the developments at PARC.

    4. Bill Waddell Says:

      Apparently Kathleen is not aware of the fact that the earth is flat and innovation is the key to everything. There is no limit to the number of wealthy fashion designers we can support, so long as they are innovative and college educated.

      “you only need one designer for every 75-150 stitchers. Anything less than that, the designer has cross duties he or she is not happy about.”

      We can have 1,000,000 innovative American fashion designers and let 75,000,000 to 150,000,000 Chinese folks do the stitching, then all 1,000,000 Americans will be millionaires.

      Isn’t that the basis for the new economy?

    5. David Foster Says:

      The failure of Xerox PARC (from a standpoint of Xerox shareholder returns) provides an example of the point that *R&D* is not a synonym for *successful product creation.” While R&D is necessary and important, it is by itself not sufficient.

      Had Xerox PARC not been organized as a “research center” but rather as a true internal venture—and run by a strong sales-oriented general manager with considerable autonomy on how the products resulting from PARC innovations were to be defined, made, marketed, and sold—I suspect that computer-industry history would have been very different.

    6. Michael Kennedy Says:

      David, they were pretty close to a usable system when they were told to “get back to making copiers.”

      The Hiltzik book, “Dealers of Lightning,” shows the author’s anti-business bias but there is another whose name I forget at the moment that is much more objective. Xerox was a company that was founded by a visionary and they let the Japanese surpass them.

    7. David Foster Says:

      This link says that Xerox PARC developed the Alto computer in 1973…apparently ***several thousand*** of these machines were built, but it was never sold commercially…some were used internally in Xerox, others given to various universities.

      To build several thousand copies of a hardware product over a period of years without attempting to sell it commercially suggests pretty strongly that it was not positioned as a serious business initiative but rather as an extended research project. I don’t know to what degree this was a function of PARC leadership vs a function of overall Xerox corporate leadership….but I bet that if PARC had been treated like a startup is handled by a venture capital firm, with good funding coupled with expectations of financial results in the form of sales and eventually profits, things would have been different. As Dr Johnson observed, the prospect of hanging tends to concentrate the mind remarkably.

      Selling these things through the Xerox copier sales force would almost certainly have been a failure; the right way to do it would have been a small dedicated sales force coupled with good referral bonuses from the larger sales organization.

    8. Brian Dunbar Says:

      What a pity we will never see a TV show featuring accountants or engineers

      There is a very engaging sitcom called ‘The Big Bang Theory’. The protagonists are ..

      3 physicists
      1 engineer
      1 Girl Next Door

      The three physicists tease the engineer about ‘only’ having a masters. He points out that he actually designs and builds things. And so on.

      But that is a sitcom. I have no idea how to make accounting or engineering ‘sexy’ or photogenic.

    9. Bill Waddell Says:

      Brian,

      The CFO at Parker Hannifin once told me that an engineer is someone who is good with numbers, but lacking in the personality and social skills needed to be an accountant. Given the personality and social skills of many accountants, I’m afraid that means the sitcom, if ever made, will be short lived.

    10. zenpundit Says:

      “However, we have a crisis in the industry in that we can’t find enough stitchers to fill demand -at least domestically. The short answer is, if we can’t get people in front of machines, we can’t hire any more designers.”

      What?

      At near 10 % unemployment? This does not compute.

      I find this difficult to credit unless they are a) offering below market rates for wages, or b) are unwilling to train unskilled labor to become stitchers and are thus competing for the more limited pool of experienced workers, or c) both.

    11. Tatyana Says:

      Zen, I am sure you’re right. Also, judging from what I see now happening in my own industry (architecture/interior design) they probably hire designers after 4-yr collage and 10yr practical experience expecting to combine designer’ responsibilities with those of stitchers, taylors, pattern-cutters and managers. For the wages of stitchers. And they have 200 applications for every opening.

    12. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I bet that if PARC had been treated like a startup is handled by a venture capital firm, with good funding coupled with expectations of financial results in the form of sales and eventually profits, things would have been different

      Within a couple of years of PARC’s end, the laser printer, ethernet and the GUI were all in production by refugees from PARC.

    13. Sam Says:

      I’ll point out that Xerox actually did sell products based on Xerox PARC’s computing technology. Back in 1981, they introduced the Star system–GUI workstation with networking, file servers, laser printer. Xerox was not particularly good at selling these things though, and probably the technology was too expensive.

    14. Michael Kennedy Says:

      In 1981, I paid about $4,000 for an IBM system that was far more primitive. It didn’t have a hard drive, the printer was dot matrix and the RAM was 64 kb.

      The machines got a lot cheaper a few years later but none were cheap early on. I do think the Star system cost about $12,000 but one wonders if Xerox had supported them what might have happened.

    15. David Foster Says:

      Zen, Tatyana….bear in mind that Kathleen is a small manufacturer and an advisor to small manufacturers…there are surely some realistic limitations on how much training is economically feasible. Also, not everyone can be reasonably trained for every job. I don’t know much about sewing, but I do know that many manufacturers of other types have found problems in finding people who can read a ruler….obviously, you could train someone to read a ruler if that’s all that was involved, but the problem is that these are people whose education has failed to teach them the whole idea of *fractions*, and the addition & subtraction of same. Just a couple of weeks ago, I heard an almost identical comment from a guy who teaches landscaping at a community college.

    16. Kathleen Says:

      Zen, I assure you this is true. Everyone I know is running short handed. Feel free to test it for yourself by placing an ad on craigslist to see how many takers you get. I placed an ad six months ago for people who could sew leather coats and didn’t get a single applicant. Really, you should read that whole entry before you pronounce it not credible. Schools don’t train people like they once did. No one today is trained as I was and the skills needed today are greater than they once were. Btw, salaries in the trade are up almost 10% over last year. Pretty amazing. They’re not bringing in anybody new. Schools are a real problem today, that was the whole issue of the fashion school bubble entry.

      Most young people today want a job where they can text or facebook all day. They resent being told the most basic things we take for granted …say, aspects of workplace safety. I was interviewing a young man to do some work around here but when I said he had to wear good shoes (not the slip-ons he had on), his face got all balled up in preparation to bellow but before he could squeal, I just said “you know, I don’t think this is the job for you” and that was that. I hired another guy (significantly older) I’d worked with before who was a good worker and paid his shop rate for a job well below his skill level just to get it done.

      I’m discomfited by your implication that we are paying less than nominal wages and also, that we can afford to train unskilled labor or even, that we are obligated to do so. I don’t understand why we are taken to task if we don’t pay premium wages to someone with no aptitude, interest or skills. No other class of manufacturer is disrespected to the extent apparel is and expected to do this. The required skills involved are more substantive than is generally acknowledged (your comment being but one example) and in many respects, is a manifestation of the bias within manufacturing itself that apparel is low skilled dumb bunny manufacturing. My husband *used* to think that…

    17. David Foster Says:

      Kathleen–”when I said he had to wear good shoes (not the slip-ons he had on), his face got all balled up in preparation to bellow”

      What could one possibly do with someone like this? He obviously can’t work in any job requiring adherence to procedures, especially in a safety-critical environment. Given his extremely prickly personality, he certainly can’t be a salesman. The only job I can possibly imagine for someone like this is a make-work bureaucratic job where results are not important.

      Several years ago, a law firm practice manager in the UK said, referring to recent college graduates, “The apparent self-esteem and expectations of some candidates render them unemployable.” But it’s not just college grads and it’s not just the UK.

    18. Brian Dunbar Says:

      What could one possibly do with someone like this?

      I spent a few days in Boulder, this week. Guy like that is well suited to running a counter at some of the hole-in-the wall boutiques and t-shirt shops there.

    19. zenpundit Says:

      Kathleen,

      You wrote:

      “I’m discomfited by your implication that we are paying less than nominal wages and also, that we can afford to train unskilled labor or even, that we are obligated to do so. I don’t understand why we are taken to task if we don’t pay premium wages to someone with no aptitude, interest or skills.”

      I am not taking you to task, I am saying that there is a disconnect here in the example based on elementary principles of economics.

      Frankly, I know nothing about stitching, but if wages are up 10 % and your applicants still do not meet your minimum criteria to be hired, then the wages are not in line with the market value of the work *at the present time* ( this is not personal, I’d say the same thing if it was a question of not being able to find a good accountant, an auto mechanic or a salesman). Or you have to train up what applicants are available because you go to work with the labor pool you have, not the labor pool as you’d wish it to be. This is an economic conundrum, not a moral or a political question.

      You’re at a huge disadvatage on labor costs relative to the global market and that would be the case even if we eliminated FICA and benefits across the board. I’m sure you are a very able businesswoman but the brutral reality is that the actual physical work of stitching can be done at lower prices elsewhere than the US. Your competitive edge vs. the world comes from some other aspect of the manufacturing process than the rate of stitcher’s wages

      BTW schools do not teach ppl to be stitchers or most other specific jobs. Or that jobs require actual work and initiative rather than facebooking. While schools can be blamed for the deficit of graduates who mastered fractions or who cannot read a ruler, issues of character involving effort, honesty, timeliness, ambition, thrift, delayed gratification and the like fundamentally begin at home.

    20. David Foster Says:

      “issues of character involving effort, honesty, timeliness, ambition, thrift, delayed gratification and the like fundamentally begin at home”…this is true; still, schools have done great harm through “self-esteem building” and through low performance standards that discourage the development of character attributes such as ambition. And the people who run the schools are ultimately *our employees*, whereas parents are not.

    21. David Foster Says:

      Kathleen also observed that “We also have a crisis with sales reps. Being more technologically astute, most of the people coming in to that side of the business are more interested in marketing via social media (twitter, FaceBook) or doing email blasts to showcase their lines to showrooms and editorial (traditional fashion pubs and blogs) but the vast majority of product lines will never be sold that way successfully.”

      I’m afraid a lot of people avoid pursuing careers as salespeople because they are afraid they will turn into Willy Loman. Part of this is social prejudice, largely inculcated in college; part of it is a fear of measurability/accountability. Returning to my earlier point about lack of solid career information, I suspect there are a lot of people, even business majors, who don’t realize the potential of business-to-business sales for making significant $$$ and positioning oneself well for executive management positions.

      Zen, while it’s true that supply/demand imbalance will drive wages toward equilibrium, it is also true that educational & cultural factors which steer people away from jobs which are actually needed, or fail to provide them with skills needed in those field, throw sand in the gears of the overall economy.

    22. Bill Waddell Says:

      Culture, home and schools all play a role. We have a President who has set a goal of having “the highest percentage of college graduates in the world”. For what possible purpose?

      40% of all college graduates since 1990 are either unemployed or under-employed. Vocational schools have been eliminated left and righht – where people used to learn a lot of the basic skils Kathleen is seeking. Instead, parents, educators and government pound the notion into kids’ heads that a college degree is the path – the only path – to success.

      How many millions of kids are churning through liberal arts educations as we write, spending billions of dollars in Pell grant money, and racking up billions more in debt, who cannot possibly find work in sociology, fine arts, classical studies, philosophy and literature? They are unemployable, but have salary expectations – salary needs, in fact if they are going to make thheir student loan payments – much higher than the likes of Kathleen can pay.

      In the end, as Mike Rowe (the guy from Dirty Jobs) recently told a Senate committee, “You’ve got a lot of very, very smart people standing by waiting for somebody else to do the work. Not a recipe for long-term solvency in my opinion.”

      Zen – Your statement of the theory of supply and demand is just fine – in theory. The problem is that the supply (kids entering their learning years) rely on misinformation regarding the nature of the demand.

      The problem is compounded by unions and civil service skewing the labor market – driving pay scales far from where supply and demand should take them. The Post Office wants to lay off 120,000 people, all of them making $50K+. What can they possibly do? Where is the job market for people whose only skills are knowing how to drive around in vehicles with the steering wheel on the wrong side and how to put envelopes in boxes? Who wants to hire the former auto industry worker who made $70k a year for doing nothing but drive a tow motor around factories since graduating from high school? They should be working for Kathleen, but have not accepted the reality that their standard of living has been artificially inflated, and they are not worth enough to maintain the house, the car and the lifestyle they have been living for decades.

    23. karrde Says:

      @David Foster
      ————-
      …Also, not everyone can be reasonably trained for every job. I don’t know much about sewing, but I do know that many manufacturers of other types have found problems in finding people who can read a ruler….obviously, you could train someone to read a ruler if that’s all that was involved, but the problem is that these are people whose education has failed to teach them the whole idea of *fractions*, and the addition & subtraction of same….
      ————-

      I know nothing about fashion work, but I do have a relative who owns a company that does machine-work with steel.

      He needs employees who can read a ruler and do arithmetic with fractions and/or decimals.

      That kind of knowledge is not guaranteed for high-school graduates which he sees coming in the door.

    24. zenpundit Says:

      Hi David,

      ” still, schools have done great harm through “self-esteem building” and through low performance standards that discourage the development of character attributes such as ambition. And the people who run the schools are ultimately *our employees*, whereas parents are not.”

      You are not being serious if you are generalizing that “self-esteem building” in public schools is corrupting a native population bristling with initiative, ambition, good manners and the protestant work ethic instilled in them by their parents, church and community. Or that alleged public school aversion to competitive mindsets, such as that exists, has the power to overcome such things that are inculcated from an early age.

      These values are vanishing because they are not explicitly taught or valued in a majority of American homes. Parents who do not themselves value hard work, learning or accountability or who with regularity, lie, cheat their employer, use illegal drugs or act in an anti-social manner are not likely to want their children to be held accountable by schools, colleges, employers or courts either.

      Public schools are not alien invaders, they largely reflect the communities in which they exist, by the fact that they have elected school boards and are filled with children who live in the community. I suspect Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago has significantly different mores and problems than a high school in Wheaton, Kenilworth or rural Wisconsin. Why? Is it because of the public school structure and curriculum? Or something else?

    25. david foster Says:

      Hi Zen…obviously public schools reflect to some extent the culture of their surrounding areas, but they also reflect the cultural values which is inculcated in ed schools…and these seem to be almost exclusively in a single direction. Imagine that community “X” is at a level of 80 in self-esteem-worship (where 100 is *total* self-esteem-worship)…maybe the schools have the flexibility to move the needle by -5 or +10 under the circumstances. If they are staffed by typical ed school grads, the movement will surely be +10.

    26. lostinspace0 Says:

      Lurker here found this blog randomly. Interesting topic as it is relevant to my life right now. I can do all the things that yes most of the young can’t do, sew, and do basic math and metric work. I actually plan to sell handmade crafts and goods from home. Yes many people are lacking but there is another key the posters here are missing NO ONE is hiring too…if you are the rare company that hires labor in the US of that type even for 4 dollars an hour…seems most companies want unskilled tedious labor of which I have no problem doing from China or some backwards country and small companies where do they get it from because about six months ago I actually looked on craigslist for that exact type of job and career builder and various sites also. One company wanted someone with a degree to run complex machinery that I did not know. Other than that it seems no one hires for unskilled labor…or maybe it’s just the day I searched I could be wrong about all this. It just seems like everyone is so quick to blame people who don’t have skills of which there still are some left and not the lack of hiring in that area also. Maybe they are getting an influx of illegals even here to work for pennies or something but I don’t know all these people trying to find manufacturing workers maybe demand is low too on the company’s sides.