Itching To Get Onto The Factory Floor

Call it "revenge of the nerds." Throughout the 1980s, finance and marketing were the hot majors at U. S. business schools, thanks to a steady demand for MBA graduates at financial-services and packaged-goods companies. The rare B-school student who specialized in operations was apt to be considered an oddball. But with jobs in investment banking and brand management harder to come by, more MBAs are deciding that manufacturing is not so boring after all. And more B-schools are offering innovative programs linking the study of engineering or manufacturing with traditional management courses.

Operations is not about to become the most popular area of study at B-schools just yet. But with declining demand for financial sorcerers, MBAs are showing more interest in making things--and in helping to restore America's industrial competitiveness. In a recent survey, incoming MBAs at Duke University's B-school said they believe manufacturing holds the most promise for them, while finance offers the least. At the University of Michigan's business school, 90 students crammed into a manufacturing-strategy class last semester, vs. only 20 in 1984. And at the University of Chicago, about 40% of the class of 1991 accepted jobs in manufacturing industries, compared with 30% in each of the three previous years.

Clearly, the Rust Belt is gaining some luster in MBA land. In the past, many MBAs bypassed Main Street for Wall Street because manufacturing companies didn't pay the high salaries that were routine in investment banking and consulting. Now, with the belt-tightening in financial services, MBAs are scaling back their salary demands--thus becoming more affordable to industrial corporations.

TWO DEGREES. And guess what? The graduates who rush off to operations jobs are no longer considered nerds. Just ask Julie Johnson, who is mapping out process improvements for Motorola Inc.'s electronics-manufacturing operation. Or her classmate, Kevin Freund, whose work links the production, distribution, and marketing plans of five different factories for Square D Co. Then, there's Tom Black, who installs process equipment and reduces production-cycle times for candymaker M&M/Mars.

Johnson, Freund, and Black are among the first grads of an innovative program known as Leaders for Manufacturing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its aim is to mold technically oriented students into executives who can revive America's competitiveness on the shop floor.

Each summer, 40 "fellows," all with undergraduate degrees in engineering or science, begin MIT's intensive two-year program. They study such subjects as statistics, process design, and grganizational behavior under both engineering and management professors. In a product-design course, students construct working prototypes from their own blueprints--hardly typical MBA fare. "We lived and breathed the stuff," says Motorola's Johnson. Students graduate with two master's degrees--one in management and another in engineering.

Eleven U. S. companies--including General Motors, Boeing, and Eastman Kodak--have kicked in hefty sums to help underwrite MIT's venture. They are also sending executives to conduct seminars, sponsoring plant tours, and taking on students for six-month internships.

They have good reason. "Very bright people like this will move to positions of broad authority," says John F. Cassidy Jr., director of technology management at United Technologies Corp., about the graduates of the MIT program. In fact, underwriting companies such as UTC hire most of grads. An added sweetener: Sponsors get access to dozens of MIT professors who conduct advanced applications research.

Other B-schools are beefing up their operations coursework by forming joint programs with schools of engineering or by adding a manufacturing concentration for MBAs. Both Cornell University and Pennsylvania State University allow students with technical backgrounds to earn joint graduate degrees in business and engineering in two years. This fall, Northwestern enrolled 60 students in its Master of Management in Manufacturing program. Similar to the MIT program, it's a two-year course with management and engineering components, including such classes as Quality Management and Customer Satisfaction. Purdue, which teaches manufacturing management to undergrads, is considering a graduate-level program.

TOO EASY? MIT is still working the kinks out of its Leaders for Manufacturing program. Some engineering professors, for example, think the technical courses aren't rigorous enough. And corporate sponsors were dismayed when a third of the grads in the program's first two years went to work for consulting firms--albeit mostly in manufacturing-related assignments.

Students and alumni say the defections to consulting occurred because many manufacturers haven't figured out how to create challenging jobs for candidates with their skills. Graduates of the MIT program got about four job offers apiece, but many of the manufacturing positions involved narrowly defined assignments and little responsibility. Sara L. Beckman, a manufacturing executive at Hewlett-Packard Co., one of the sponsoring companies, admits that HP is still wrestling with how to use its new managers. "We're all trying to get our own companies to view manufacturing as equal to other functions," she says.

Nevertheless, most grads of the MIT program seem happy to be on the shop floor. Seeded in factories from Augusta, Me., to Albuquerque, most say they will stick with manufacturing, perhaps as plant managers or manufacturing-operations directors. "I love what I'm doing now," says Square D's Freund. "As long as they keep me challenged, I'm happy." Privately, some graduates admit they aspire to the ranks of senior management, which have traditionally been filled with finance and marketing types. Who knows? Some day, manufacturing could become the best route to the corner office. That would be the ultimate revenge of the nerds.


School Program

MIT Leaders for Manufacturing

PENN STATE Joint degree in business and engineering

NORTHWESTERN Master of Management in Manufacturing

CORNELL Joint degree in business and engineering

PURDUE Manufacturing courses for undergrads