Chain of Thought

An Industry Fit for a Prime Minister

I've heard elitists call community colleges “The 13th Grade,” and in the case of Cuyahoga Community College, or Tri-C, near my home in Cleveland, “Tri-High.” So it was great to hear former British Prime Minister Tony Blair shame those loudmouths by making a personal appearance at this school to help them raise more than $1 million for scholarships.

“Education is the centerpiece for the best social policy,” The Plain Dealer quoted him as saying. He also said that he would never have succeeded without a good education. “It made me have the courage to strive and liberated me in a vital and important way. But once you get an education, it's up to you and you have to work hard.”

Nobody works harder than the professionals in material handling and logistics, but people like you are also blessed to have an industry association dedicated to ensuring that more people like you keep coming into these disciplines with a good educational grounding. That dedication to education was the focus of an interview I had with the outgoing and incoming CEOs of the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA).

John Nofsinger recently announced his retirement as of the end of this year and George Prest will succeed him. I thought this would be a good time to find out how this will affect MHIA's focus and direction.

It turns out that the only way its focus and direction will change is to get stronger—especially where education is concerned. Prest brings more than 30 years of experience to MHIA, both in managing and owning material handling manufacturing companies. Over the years he has been recognized for his volunteer leadership of industry manufacturers and distributor associations, local government and charitable foundations. This leadership includes serving as president of the Material Handling Education Foundation (MHEFI). Prest sees education as the common bond for all the parties MHIA serves.

“Until the beginning of October I was president of MHEFI, a separate organization that stands on its own,” Prest told me. “MHIA will work closely with MHEFI to expand programs.”

MHEFI just added four new board members, including Liz Richards of the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association (MHEDA); Jim Bowes, CEO at Peach State Integrated Technologies; Sal Fateen, owner of Seizmic Engineering; and Gregg Meyer, president of Albion Industries. Prest said those were strategic moves in that it opened the door to individuals who didn't necessarily belong to MHIA member companies.

By opening up those new channels of communication, MHIA will also address tough national issues like the skilled labor shortage, which goes hand-in-hand with education, according to Nofsinger.

“Absent someone stepping in to provide some support in the form of education grants and research we'd leave industry on the horns of a dilemma,” he said. “If I can't get enough humanity to handle, move, protect and control and my options are only to put in advanced automation and technology, and if I'm not profitable enough to sustain that kind of strategy, I'm left with one or two options: offshoring or outsourcing. We lived through that in the last decade and we're starting to live with some of the shortfalls of that approach today.

“Now we're seeing a little more nearshoring because people learned the hard way that you don't want to give up your core competencies easily because you'll lose a lot of competitive advantage. We're trying to provide, particularly with our undergraduate work, some critical mass so companies can find sufficient talent in America and to locate their operations in America.”

Prest sees that education effort reaching beyond the college and university levels. He says it needs to start much earlier.

“Our industry touches everything, but few people know that,” he said. “I'm looking at education from grade schools to Ph.D. level. At the Applied Technology Center in Rock Hill, SC. we have a mini warehouse set up and there's training going on. Young people are learning to install and operate material handling systems for inventory control and picking. We're also developing research grants to make sure we keep professors engaged in our industry. They will teach the next generation and keep the cycle going.”

Prest concluded that with the evolution of the U.S. economy, necessity will drive material handling invention and the multidisciplinary approach recognizes there is no longer just a single answer.

“[Our companies] work together as an industry much better than before and we're coming up with solutions together,” he said.

Nofsinger is committed to helping Prest grow into his new responsibilities.

“I'll provide assistance around the edges to smooth out the succession and transition activities through next year,” he said. “I have no intention of stopping my interest in and support and service to an industry that's all I've ever known.”

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