Interview with Darlene Miller
Darlene M. Miller is President and CEO of Permac Industries, a custom manufacturer of precision parts for customers worldwide in aerospace, defense, medical, transportation, hydraulics, food and beverage, and other industries. In an interview with Hope Street Group, Darlene shares her passion for creating quality products, as well as outstanding, skills-focused job opportunities for young people:
You have both a private and public perspective of workforce issues as a CEO of Permac Industries and as a Council Member in the Obama Administration. How do these roles influence one another and what challenges arise as a result?
The energy spent on one seems to reenergize our efforts in the other. The visibility that the President’s Job Council gave me enabled me to shorten the curve for creating the Right Skills Now partnership, which would have otherwise been very difficult and timely to create because of the inertia of the institutions and their structure. The spotlight of the White House Council was key to getting everyone to “Yes we can,” instead of “this will take time.” And the Right Skills Now Graduates are now in the workforce (I hired three myself)—that is good for me as a business person. Plus, it gives me the perspective needed to improve what we built and to develop Right Skills Now, phase 2. So the two roles are very complementary and enabling.
Has Permac had any personal experience with the skills gap that exists between what employers need and what students know? How do you think the private, public and education sectors should work together to solve these problems? Where do you see Hope Street Group in this process?
That is what got me involved with the Jobs Council and creating Right Skills Now to begin with. I tried for over two years to hire a qualified candidate to run one of the CNC Swiss machines in my shop. Frankly, I thought that it was just my problem (maybe I wasn’t advertising right?) or a local problem. You know, in my area, we are a real center for high-quality precision machining. A lot of local shops make parts for medical, aerospace, fluid power, electronics, but as I networked with CEOs from other companies in my business through our national association, the PMPA, I finally realized that it wasn’t just me, or just our local market.
The skills gap is a real, national problem in our industry. When I started on the Jobs Council, there was a published figure that there were 600,000 jobs requiring skilled workers that remained unfilled. We did a sample in our national association and all of the CEOs we spoke with said that they would hire a person with skills even if they didn’t have an open position at that time.
I think that as employers, we have to do a better job of explaining the career opportunities available in our shops that don’t require years of college or decades of college loans—and that the work is challenging and probably even more mentally stimulating than what the entry-level college grads (who are lucky enough to find an entry-level position) get. We need the public schools to recognize that the one-size-fits-all college model isn’t working. Many, many, recent college grads are underemployed, unemployed, and underwater on their college loans. So simply, it is coming together to develop skills in our young people and showing them the opportunities that await in manufacturing that we need to do going forward.
Hope Street Group continues to work on innovations in education, of which I am very pleased to be a part of. I urge all to understand that to compete in a highly competitive global economy, we need our children to have strong basic skills in math and problem-solving and science, so that they can develop the skills that the economy currently needs—skills that aren’t necessarily gained in college.
You are very involved in Hope for Tomorrow, a mentoring program primarily for girls that partners teenagers with business leaders. How has your gender impacted your climb up the business ladder and how does that affect they way you choose to mentor these young students?
My gender has been my strength, even though others may see it as an obstacle. My “lady’s focus” on details and housekeeping standards and how the parts and paperwork and packaging looked—and just a whole host of different issues—helped my team develop a different ethic. They understood that the lady boss expected the parts to look like jewelry. The service our inside people gave was befitting a high-end jeweler, so while the men in the manufacturing culture had their male metaphors that served them well, my feminine side helped my team create an entirely different kind of company and customer experience.
Never did I think I would someday be running my company, but with the help of my mentors, I am doing just that. So my mentoring today is to help my young women realize that if they have the ability to dream it, they also have the capability to achieve it. I help them see themselves in more positive situations than their current reality. Mentoring worked for me, and it is why I feel such a strong drive to mentor with these young women and also engage in my public efforts for skilled workforce development.
Hope Street Group convenes leaders from all sectors in an effort to tackle the pressing problems we face as a nation. How do you think this approach influences reform and innovation? Do you employ a similar approach in your role as a CEO?
I do. You might find this surprising, but I find that by traveling—domestically and internationally—I can learn about a lot of different things that can be applied to whatever it is that I am dealing with. I learned to compete with China by visiting China, I learned about the Swiss and German apprenticeship systems by my visits there, and I even gained US/International customers from trips I made to a global manufacturing summit in Ireland and a Governors’ trade mission to India. I am into discovering the best way, not on insisting that something has to be “our idea” or “invented by us.” We have customers to serve. What is the best way to help us do that? Let’s go find it, then do it.
You come from a farm family. How has this upbringing influenced your opinion on higher education and job training? What initial lessons have stayed with you throughout your career in manufacturing and your work in the public sector?
You know, it is difficult to put into words those kinds of lessons. Seeing my father do the daily work, regardless of how he felt or what else was going on. My mother always keeping us kids on track (all 8 of us), and our handling chores that many of the kids in school didn’t have to do. How do you put into words the love of family, the acceptance of responsibility, and the faith that in the end you will get what you work for?
I was lucky to have the family, the love, the work, the hardship and not having a lot to distract me. Plus, I had the courage to dream and act on my dreams.
That’s what I mentor people to do. To dream, and act on those dreams. In this economy, if you dream of a stable personal economy, the action is to get a credentialed skill that is needed. The rest will take care of itself.
One of my mottos is: “You are never given a dream without the opportunity to do so.” Let’s make this happen with our skilled and talented workforce!