I am amazed at how some manufacturers approach the shortage of skilled workers and the recruitment of the next generation of maintenance department personnel.

Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, and the number of departures in upcoming years will be substantial. This will create considerable pain for the industrial sector and the country as a whole. What's the solution?

In my job at RP, I travel around. I talk to plant and corporate leaders. I read their local papers. I see the relationships their companies have with schools in their area, and with their elected representatives in government.

More often than not, the solutions I see and read about are weak and short-sighted. The focus is heavily on recruiting and developing the sub-par students, the dropouts, the at-risk kids, the young men and women who "don't fit in a traditional school environment", the former gang members, the ones who have had run-ins with the law, etc.

I am, by no means, against recruiting and/or hiring these kinds of kids. Many of them are indeed looking for a chance and a future, and manufacturers can provide that. These kids can be some of a company's hungriest, most focused employees.

My issue is that some manufacturers appear to stop there. It's as if they are resigned to their fate as employers. Doing so leaves industry with an inferiority complex (we can't compete with other career options). In some respects, it works to reinforce the old stereotype of manufacturing as a dead-end, low-paying, grunt-work career.

Why not also pursue the solid students, the Dean's List kids, the problem-solvers, the leaders, the artists, the creators, the difference-makers, the achievers, the computer geeks, the communicators, etc.? Why not go after the best and the brightest?

Manufacturers and the entities that work to support them - including schools, communities and government agencies - must think differently to not only address the employment issue but also that of U.S. industrial competitiveness. To succeed, we need the best workers with the best skills on our team. That skill set should be more comprehensive today than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

To recruit the best, plants need potential workers to see the industrial environment in a new light. At 21st-century plants, technical work is more about computers, robotics and cutting-edge technologies and less about wrenches and hammers. It's heavily based on solutions, business and bottom-line economics. (Read Drew Troyer's Exponent columns to get a glimpse of the future of maintenance and reliability.)

Plants need to promote manufacturing as a fascinating career. Think about the grade school classes that visit your plant. The kids are wide-eyed. They think it's cool. Why don't they feel the same way when they are in high school? Market yourself - as an employer and as a neat place to build a career.

Manufacturers must promote the fact that they pay excellent wages. Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corporation chairman John Stollenwerk once told me, "There are smart kids working in the service industry for low wages when they could be making double that in manufacturing." Amen.

Finally, stress the power of education. A manufacturing career does not preclude the best of the best from also pursuing college. Just ask Toyota. It encourages its workforce to continually learn. It reasons that a better educated person is a better employee. Toyota not only wants team members to obtain a high school diploma, but to continue on to a community college or four-year degree.

The next generation of skilled workers is out there. It's up to you to go get them.