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A conversation with Nick Pinchuk, Chairman and CEO of Snap-On Incorporated

Photo: Nick Pinchuk

This month, we continue our ongoing series of conversations with influential leaders in business.

This month, we continue our ongoing series of conversations with influential leaders in business. Last quarter, we spoke with Ronnie Chan about China and their role in the global economy, and we’ve previously featured conversations with for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Susan Goldberg of the National Geographic. This month’s conversation bears particular relevance with the launch earlier this month of New Skills for Youth, our $75 million five-year initiative to expand high-quality workforce training to young people worldwide.

Beyond the economy, how does the acquisition of technical skills affect opportunities for young men and women?

Technical education truly is a passport to a financially rewarding and deeply fulfilling career. Professionals who work in these everyday but essential pursuits are able to keep their families warm and safe and dry. They rightfully hold pride and dignity in their work. It’s always been so— technical jobs have been the essential building blocks of our society. But the ongoing supply of these professionals is challenged. First, technical education often does not match what is really required in today’s workplace. Many schools have only limited visibility of the practical needs. Second and more importantly, these careers, although essential, are viewed by a substantial portion of the population as being the consolation prize of our day. In short, technical education and technical careers have both a delivery problem in education and an optics problem in perception.

What challenges does your company face when it comes to developing and growing your workforce?

Industry now faces real workforce challenges that, collectively, are a clear headwind to economic development, and Snap-on is no exception. But because the Snap-on brand is so strong with working men and women and because we have a reservoir of technical capability, we have less difficulty attracting and retaining a capable workforce. That said, we do still find ourselves challenged in some technical disciplines and in particular locations, clearly indicating that a skills gap exists even for well-established companies like Snap-on. The difficulty does become much more pronounced for smaller enterprises and start-ups—significant job creators that don’t necessarily benefit from reputation or internal training capability. We vividly see this gap in many of the industries we serve. Vehicle technicians, airline mechanics, factory CNC operators and other critical professionals are clearly in short supply. And the gap is expected to widen as more sophisticated capabilities are required in these increasingly complex workplaces.

Closing this gap … up-skilling the workforce … is critical to the growth of the economy and, I believe, is the seminal issue of our time. The National Association of Manufacturers says the No. 1 factor for its members in selecting a plant location is access to a local skilled workforce. It’s clear … weak skills limit expansion. The difficulty can be seen on a macrolevel. Society has ascended because of the contributions of the enabled many—workers performing the critical tasks that define technical careers. But if you read the headlines today, they’ll declare that the middle class, the enabled many, is shrinking.

Technical jobs have historically been the wellspring of that middle class. Naturally, if we are unable to fill these jobs, economic growth will be difficult and the dwindling will continue.

In your conversations with other leaders in business, is there a consensus on the types of long-term solutions that may be necessary to address workforce challenges?

When I speak with other business leaders on the global competition for jobs, they confirm the two up-skilling challenges I just mentioned. And there clearly are some things business can do to help.

First, there really is a mismatch between education and the actual capabilities required. To fix the problem, it’s important for business to partner with education … to work with schools, matching curricula with what is required to practically function in this world of modern and ever-evolving technology. One solution, “stackable” certifications, allows students to continually add incremental skills, expanding their employable knowledge base. In concert with the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3) and more than 250 community colleges around the country, Snap-on is partnering with other companies to create certification programs in 86 different areas applicable across multiple industries. So far, 33,000 students have received nearly 51,000 certifications in disciplines like mechanical calibration, electrical measurement and diagnostics … real, practical skills needed to perform. These are quality results in sizable numbers, but we need more to truly address the challenges and advance young people into rewarding careers and lives.

Second, we must celebrate technical jobs for their importance to current-day society. It’s crucial that our leaders emphasize, in their action and in their speech, the dignity associated with technical work. Attitudes are changing, but there is a very long way to go. Too many people still see technical careers as dumb, dark and dirty, and unworthy of their young. And this characterization is just no longer so. Consider automotive repair. Modern vehicles require sophisticated technical insight to conduct even the most basic diagnosis and repair. Cars now have more computing power than the lunar module that landed on the moon, and the skill required to keep them rolling has risen right along with the digital trend. The same increased complexity also holds true in manufacturing and other industries across the globe. Technical tasks of today require substantial skill and can only be accomplished by serious professionals. Opinion leaders in business, education and government need to recognize this reality and promote it.

What kind of training and education programs in high school do you think have the greatest potential to create economic opportunity for young people?

When it comes to celebrating career and technical education at the high school level…raising the profile of professionals like machinists, welders or carpenters … SkillsUSA and its international partners are stand-out programs … they conduct local, state and national competitions that celebrate the individual excellence displayed in technical fields by the young men and women who are their members. The whole idea is to bring pride and dignity to skilled professions and to the students pursuing them. In fact, we need young people to increasingly choose the technical pathways that will expand the economy, give them a great career and reignite the middle class. A great step in that direction is to invest in organizations that can deliver the scale and quality results we need … like SkillsUSA. More than 300,000 students are participating in SkillsUSA programs, and we should build on their success.

On another front, we have to acknowledge that technical learning can, and should, be viewed on the same level as other studies. We need to stop treating career and technical education as separate and disconnected from the rest of school … stop structuring it as an ending, with rare links to further learning opportunities. It should be a beginning, integrated with other programs in new ways that foster lifelong learning, formally recognizing the value of technical skills as a springboard toward other careers. There’s no reason qualification as car mechanic can’t lead to being an engineer, a professor or a CEO.

How has your military service influenced the way you run your company?

My time in the Army taught me the value of teamwork, the importance of skills and the power of confidence and belief. It’s guided how I serve my company and how I think about any issue, including the up-skilling of our youth. The military is the ultimate team … the efforts of the many coming together in service of a cause important to a nation and to the world. To be successful, companies must enlist employees in the same way. People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves … to have purpose in their work. As in the military, we at Snap-on have purpose … easing society’s way by making critical tasks solvable and giving working men and women the ability to display the pride and dignity inherent in their professions. I believe both are worthy endeavors.

Anyone who has been in the military understands the extreme importance of technical capability. Up, down and across the ranks, soldiers perform complex tasks, all coming together to achieve a common goal. In the end, nothing is accomplished without the efforts and contributions of the enabled many. It’s clear across the military. The same holds true in our company and in the industries we serve.

Finally, what I also learned from my experience as an officer in Vietnam is that, as a leader, you not only “walk the talk” … but you also must “talk the walk.” During times of turbulence, people look to their leaders for reinforcement. They pay attention to how you act and, almost as importantly, what you say. Are you confident? Do you believe in your path? A leader needs to be a certain trumpet, reflecting confidence and belief in the way forward. And this is true in an Army unit or in a business enterprise.