The Need For Technical Skills In E&S

We’ve talked for years about the intense need to bring younger people into this wonderful business. On this Labor Day—yes, I’m laboring in the office—several things have recently come together to help me better understand the skills we need these young people to have. In a word, technical and people skills of all kinds.

Last week I was in Louisville, Ky., I visited with Aaron Thomas, chief engineer at KFC, and also Roger McLendon, chief sustainability office for Yum! Brands. Aaron is probably in his early to mid-30s. Though he’s young, we’ve know him for several years, thanks to our MUFES meetings. He showed me around the labs and discussed some of the super-secret things they are working on. Sorry, they are secret. And he introduced me to two twentysomethings, one a summer intern, another an intern they have just hired full time. The pipeline for these highly trained engineers has been clear at Yum! for years: the engineering school at the University of Louisville. We all need to find this kind of local pipeline, whether it be an engineering program or a community college technical program. I know NAFEM is working on just such an initiative with community colleges.

I also visited with Suzannah Stephens, the marketing manager at Grindmaster Cecilware, and her boss Nestor Ibrahim, who many of us have known for years. Nestor and I have known each other for more than 30 years, and we started discussing the need to replace ourselves! It’s not easy when one has the experience of a Nestor Ibrahim, who has been running manufacturing companies in the business since Stainless Inc. Especially because Nestor’s abilities are broad: He knows how to run a factory, he understand marketing and strategy, he’s obviously good with team building and people. Some things you can go to school for. But some just require an open mind, intelligence and the ability to think and synthesize. Some of it’s technical, but some of it requires broader skills, too. I’ve always been fascinated by engineers and manufacturing folks who get bored and end up selling things. There are many in this business.


Then this morning, I was listening to “Here and Now,” a program on National Public Radio. Robert Reich, labor secretary in the Clinton administration, was on, talking about a “second path to the middle class.” I’ve always been a fan of Reich. He taught me exactly what was going to happen to the labor markets in the developed world in an article in The New Republic in the early 1990s before he was labor secretary. He wrote that low- skilled jobs and many manufacturing  jobs, were on their way out. The future was going to be owned by the “symbolic analysts,” those who could manipulate ideas and information. He was absolutely right, as we all see now.

He’s all for people going to college. After all, he’s now a professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley. But he said beyond symbolic analysts there is another huge need in modern developed economies for technicians of all kinds. All these complex machines, from the shop floor to the computer systems we all rely on, require technicians. Most importantly, we have a critical need for the service techs who maintain the huge installed base of foodservice equipment. That need is only going to get more intense. And the ability to run machines has another layer critical to all our success: those who cook. But let’s also remember, in all these technical jobs, one still needs to be able to work well with people. It’s a combination of hard and soft skills we all are looking for.

So school is starting. Why not go visit your local college and community college and talk to them about their programs. There is certainly some young person there who will help you replace yourself.


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Robin Ashton



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