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Legos On The Plant Floor?

Mon, 04/08/2013 - 4:00pm
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

We’ve all probably heard about the incredible perks that Silicon Valley technology companies give their employees. According to a recent AP story, that includes some superfluous perks that sound like they belong more at home in a daycare facility than a multinational technology firm. Apple’s campus-in-progress will feature an orchard for engineers to wander through, while Facebook is wrapping up work on campus that features a B-B-Q shack, a sushi house and a bike shop. At the same time, Google is offering ping pong tables, video game arcades and Lego stations.

It all sounds too good to be true. Except that it’s absolutely the new reality for Silicon Valley companies. Anything less, and engineers won’t apply, and that’s a real problem, because anyone with know-how in that world is aware that engineers can’t be hired fast enough. Bubble or not, things are growing faster than ever.

And it is too good to be true, because those benefits are anything but — they’re ploys to keep workers not happy, but working.

For the most part, these engineers aren’t the kind of people who would otherwise work in manufacturing, so their constant migration to the Bay Area isn’t particularly troubling to our industry. But there must have been some who, at least in passing, must have considered working in manufacturing. And maybe, in comparing the benefits of working on a plant floor against the benefits of working at Facebook, they chose the latter. Because let’s face it — OSHA wouldn’t be too happy to see a ping pong table alongside the stamping machine.

It’s said that young people today are more family-oriented and less fiscally-driven than ever before. They want a good work-life balance, and they don’t want to work too much. But based on how they’re flocking to these Silicon Valley firms, or at least cherishing them as best-in-class places to work (and work and work), there seems to be quite the contradiction. It’s no secret that these perks, along with free meals, laundry and haircuts, give more incentive for workers not to find that ideal work-life balance.

Google employees shoot pool at in a break room at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., Friday, March 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)These Silicon Valley employers doesn’t care why an employee stayed two hours later after their regular hours — even if all they did was drink free microbrews and played ping pong the entire time. By keeping them in the office, there’s a higher chance they’ll contribute more around those break periods, and the bevy of benefits tend to push employees into coming back on the weekends, when they will inevitably continue to work beyond their 40 hours. It’s a pretty brilliant scheme, but it’s a bit too far on the Stockholm syndrome side of things for my comfort.

And while people continue to espouse the many benefits of working at a Silicon Valley tech company, they don’t talk about the benefits of working in manufacturing. Sure, there’s no aforementioned ping pong table, but what the two do share, for engineering types, are good salaries and interesting work. And because a manufacturer can’t be run from home, there’s regular hours, which life can be planned around. There’s no Lego station to encourage you to stick around longer, sure, but that means workers can go home and play with Legos on their own time, or even with their own children.

Of course, manufacturing people know this already. The trouble is, then, spreading that word — that just because manufacturing is an older industry than building websites, it’s no dinosaur — on to others. What’s the best way? Perhaps there really isn’t one. We can try talking about how “cool” manufacturing is, showcase some interesting products made by trend-setting companies, but there’s a diminishing return every year that Google gets talked about more than GM. There’s a small contingent of people who get excited about Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla, but they have only so many jobs, even if things are going well on both fronts.

I say let them have their sushi joints. They’re not hurting anyone, especially when they’re wandering aimlessly through that Apple orchard when they should have gone home an hour ago. And an even better reason to let them get that sashimi instead of getting a home-cooked meal? If they start fleeing the Valley for jobs outside of the bubble, they’re going to start demanding similar perks everywhere else.

And no one wants the sushi chef working anywhere near the wastewater treatment machines or the paint booths. A stray Lego at home means, at worst, a sore foot. At a billion-dollar oil refinery? Let’s just say there’s no point in debating benefits if there’s no one left to benefit from them.

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