Macro/Micro: Manufacturing associations

Last November, I attended an international workforce development event organized by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the US-based lobbying and trade association for American manufacturers. Regardless of the exact session topic, a theme that came up in every panel was how misperceived the manufacturing industry is. This misperception has led to a decline in American youth who seek manufacturing as a career.

Personally, my father and his mother did everything they could to steer me away from manufacturing. My grandmother worked the line in a hosiery mill, then later in a plastic box factory. It ruined her back and her hearing, and both she and my father made it quite clear that she did this work so that when I graduated I wouldn’t have to.

Today’s manufacturing, though, is an entirely different breed than Dorthy Bell’s backbreaking labor. “Today’s manufacturing is cutting edge, integrating technology that demands the best of a productive and talented workforce,” says Haley Stevens, associate director of Workforce Development & Education Outreach for the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute — a Chicago-based center funded by President Obama’s National Network for Innovation program. Manufacturing today no longer wants your body, it wants your mind, requiring, as Stevens puts it, “a class of innovation workers contributing anywhere from the design to the production and delivery phase of manufacturing.”

This disconnect between what manufacturing is and what young professionals believe it to be is interesting enough on its own. Translators no longer sit around with French-English dictionaries and typewriters and haven’t for quite some time. Nor do “translators” sit in booths at the United Nations with headphones over their ears. Every profession has its incorrect stereotypes, its misperceptions in the public eye. Nurses are not all female, many lawyers are underpaid and schoolteachers often do not get summers off.

The link between manufacturing and translation, for the purposes of this article, isn’t that the nuts and bolts of both industries are misunderstood by society today. It’s whether we have the capabilities to fix our misunderstanding.

NAM panelist Greg Bashore, human resources director for Global Primary Products at Alcoa, commented during the conference that the ability to create change is inherently dependent on having an infrastructure that supports it. In other words, individual manufacturers are not capable of changing the image of manufacturing alone. Public perception change comes from industry infrastructure out.

If you think about it, this is logical. I have said for years, both in and outside of this column, that translation client education can never effectively be done by the translation company. From where the client sits, we stand to profit. The company is, after all, trying to sell something, and we do, at the end of the day, make money for our services. An example would be how any article labeled “sponsored content” is generally dismissed by readers as advertising, regardless of whether its content is better written or more accurate than articles in the same magazine.

To the skeptical, one company calling another company’s behavior substandard is not client education — it’s competition. It’s only through the unified front of professional associations and lobbying organizations, which do not favor one provider over the next, that clients come to take the information provider at its word. A professional association can be trusted because it does not upsell the end client. In fact, it stands to make no money directly from the end client at all.

But, again, I’ve said this for years — this is the part we all know and why we have the American Translators Association (ATA), the Association of Language Companies (ALC), the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) and others — so things that must be said have someone to say them.

But just because an infrastructure exists doesn’t mean it’s strong. According to USA Today, over 63,000 bridges in the United States are in need of repair. Yes, those bridges exist, but are they strong enough for you to drive your children over them? Our industry has an infrastructure. But is it strong enough to drive your business into the future?

According to Common Sense Advisory, there are over 26,000 translation companies in the world today. ATA has 747 company members, GALA has 400, and ALC only 150. So again I ask, is our infrastructure a strong one?

Strength is not exclusive to large numbers. Even from smaller groups, large change can be made. Christ had 12 disciples; there are 2.18 billion Christians in the world today. The Declaration of Independence had just 56 signers, but now 320 million Americans are free from British rule. Rosa Parks was one woman alone on a bus. You do not have to be large to affect change — only mighty.

I dare not dream, however, that anyone would ever use the word mighty to describe this industry called translation.

I only wish we could settle on the word focused. The translation industry does not need to conquer the world. We only need to be able to work in it and to be appreciated for the work we do, something all humans yearn for. But we are not even agreed on our cause much less focused on it, and this lack of organization is what keeps our infrastructure from becoming strong enough to make a difference for us all. We do not need large numbers, but we do need those few involved to focus.

It’s tough. I’ve served on both the ALC leadership council and the GALA board, as well as been an active member of ATA. And one thing all three organizations’ leadership had in common was constantly having to decide whether to do what was best for the individual organization or for the industry as a whole. And many times this answer is unfortunately not the same.

But you cannot deny that there are issues — large, irrefutable, profit-blocking issues — such as public ignorance as to who is qualified to translate and the fact that rates are plummeting below minimum wage, and these affect the members of every industry trade association.

But try getting all the trade associations to acknowledge that these are the problems worth fighting! At the ATA’s most recent Translation Company Division meeting, the chosen discussion was how to make your first hire, a lesson that any company, translation or not, could get from a nonindustry chamber of commerce. GALA has the potential to be strong, but it struggles with one identity crisis after the next. It started out for vendors only, then included clients, then focused sessions exclusively on vendors, and is now refocusing on both vendors and clients — and don’t forget throwing the interpreting industry in the mix now too. As for ALC, well, when I was a council member, only a minority of conference attendees even showed up for sessions. The rest just hung out and played tennis or golf.

Am I rude — am I controversial — am I demanding to want more?

I do know one thing I am, and it’s envious. I am envious of my friends in manufacturing who are able to take my grandmother’s world of hosiery mills and storage box assembly lines and turn it into one of 3D printed cars and Star Trek-style replicators. Like much of the translation industry, the manufacturing industry has been able to transition into the twenty-first century, technological and other advancements moving full-steam ahead. But unlike translation, they are able to come together and publicize the message that this is where they are going.

If we want the world to know where we are — where translation is going — then our infrastructure has got to get its head straight. It’s time to step off the tennis court and step into the court of public opinion. Our infrastructure is not large enough to squander any resources on distractions. It’s time for the translation industry to get laser sharp in our focus — as sharp as the beam on a modern manufacturer’s tool.