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Let's change the perception of our industry

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Tech Talk by Peter Mate
Peter Mate is co-owner and president of Planit Canada, a software and services company devoted to servicing the manufacturing industry. For more info email peterm@planitcanada.ca

At a recent Wood Manufacturing Council (WMC) board of directors meeting, the topic of young workers and the woodworking industry came up. Things became clear about what young workers think about our industry. It has a stigma of sawdust, work boots and loud manufacturing plants.
But it can be so much more than that.
I mentioned how I must have cut hundreds of cabinets, but never have I cut a sheet of material on a sliding table saw. Sounds strange, but I never used most of the manual equipment in a typical shop.
I fell in love with our industry through the technology and high-tech machines. The CNC machines and the software captured my attention. I would have never made my career in woodworking if I had to sand doors for a living. It’s just not my thing.
I see it again and again. The transition of a business to a new generation sparks automation. The younger generation wants software, automated machines, systems that are more advanced than the collection of manual machines with skilled labour in the shop. The shortage of skilled labour in the shop doesn’t help the status quo. Fewer and fewer skilled labourers are available to work in the shop or even want to work in the shop.
Automation pushes jobs from the shop floor to the front office and young employees prefer that. We should think of this when we market our industry to young potential employees. Let’s stop showing pictures of people in a dusty shop with overalls and ear protection. Let’s start showing pictures of high tech CAD engineers dressed in clean casual clothes with a Starbucks coffee at a desk.
Let’s automate and give young employees a reason to choose woodworking instead of other industries.
I know that if you are a young, motivated individual, you can get further faster in our industry than you could in other manufacturing sectors. Since there are fewer young competing employees, you stand out. Not the same in aerospace or automotive. There are tons of young competitive co-workers who are elbowing for the same raises and opportunities.
The irony is that CAD drafting in woodworking and CAD drafting in other industries with the perception of being more high-tech, is actually the same. We use similar tools and processes. We have similar automated machines. We typically also have the opportunity of having a greater impact on the finished product. I remember a chef who was telling me the difference of working in a big renowned hotel restaurant and a small restaurant. He said in the large hotel restaurant, each chef had a particular task. You might be the starch guy. That’s your contribution to the finished plate. In a smaller restaurant, it’s your plate. You’re responsible for it all.
So maybe our industry is smaller and maybe we are behind in terms of automation and technology, but all that really means is that there’s opportunity. If you’re young and ambitious, secondary wood processing is an industry with great opportunity. Why battle in a herd of like-minded, tech-savvy co-workers in aerospace or automotive when you can fly under the radar in the woodworking industry and climb the corporate ladder at an accelerated rate.
When you do like everyone else, you end up like everyone else. Step outside the norm and sometimes you get rewarded. I’ve been blessed with a successful and fulfilling career in woodworking for 16 years now. I truly enjoy the industry, the people and the opportunities. 

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