My neighbor said that he has lived the American dream, so I asked for an explanation. What follows – his comments responding to my questions – teach important lessons to today's manufacturing industry leaders.
Deitmar Weselin was born early in World War II at Heilbronn, Germany, near Stuttgart. After the war, he talked with American soldiers in this U.S.-occupied zone. He was impressed with images of automobiles and single-family houses in a faraway land. But he was not successful in the tests at age 13 to enter high school, so he entered an apprenticeship to become a machine-tool builder. That goal was achieved at 17, and he returned to school to graduate as a machine-tool design engineer at age 22. He rose quickly in service and operations management ranks at one employer while working in Germany, England and France. Weselin finally immigrated to America in 1969 to work for Pearl Machine Tool Company (Nashville, Tenn.), one of the United States’ largest (at the time) new and used equipment firms to import, sell, install and service machine tools. He stayed with Pearl to manage and successfully upgrade the company’s acquisition of American Hercules in Shelbyville, Ind. In 1980 at age 39, Weselin left Pearl to become a consultant but was immediately approached by industry friends with that “offer you cannot refuse” – to define, build and manage the American presence of Walter Grinders (now Koerber Schleifring Group), today the largest maker of state-of-the-art CNC grinding machine tools in the world.
My questions to Weselin probed problems that his start-up venture encountered, issues his firm and competitors faced during his tenure until retirement and his thoughts about solving common manufacturing-industry concerns regarding jobs and offshoring. His insights from experience are revealing.
An early and persistent problem involved availability of a trained labor force. Weselin made the point that in America young people are required to attend school even if they lack aptitude or maturity for learning. Parents have expectations that a college education is the only good outcome for life preparation, and other avenues, such as learning manufacturing skills, are demeaning. Generally, school systems do not offer an alternative such as an apprentice program for young people. Weselin found that his company was forced to provide two to three years of training at company expense to obtain skilled workers. He was astounded to find that when this education was offered, young Americans would not avail themselves of the opportunity unless paid for their attendance. At Weselin's company there never were any white- or blue-collar job categories, only a “technician” or “associate” job title. The stigma of little respect for industrial skills must change via imparting a culture of family values. The loss of cohesive families and parental training of the young is an American Achilles’ heel. But on balance he found that American youth accept job opportunities more readily and advance because they are less risk-adverse or concerned with job security than peers around the world.
A second and recurrent problem involved language. Weselin learned that wherever a company technician worked, the local language must be the mother tongue of that worker. This means that a native speaker in any nation is a better long-term employee, when trained by a technical guru from headquarters, as opposed to taking a skilled craftsman and teaching him a new language. It is this “local talent” that is the backbone of successful sales and service forces in every nation.
A third area that plagues the American manufacturing sector is the “English inch” versus metric system needs of market consumers. It is common outside the U.S. for products to be made primarily for export (two-thirds is common in Europe), but in the U.S. only 10-20% of goods are made for export (dependent on sector) because of high domestic consumption, creating a “dual” manufactured product dilemma that is costly. It would be helpful if American industry adopted the metric system and coerced the public to accept this simpler system of weights and measures.
A fourth area presenting change is the fact that the combined costs of raw material and transportation can be over 50% of product cost while labor is a dwindling part, often 10% due to use of sophisticated equipment to achieve efficiency. This is a dynamic that continues, and it is exacerbated by offshore manufacturing. Weselin's view is that once these jobs are sent abroad, they will never return to our shores. So it is imperative that America keeps and controls the technological advantage – an edge that America enjoys – and does so with an improved patent system.
The rest of the world is working hard to displace U.S. industry, which must focus on these real issues. We need to appreciate citizens like Deitmar Weselin, who lived the American dream and now offers his wisdom to us. IH
Relearning the American Dream
February 1, 2007