By Todd Steven Burroughs

Reflecting on his years with Cummins Engine Corp., Allen Gray said the point was to “convert raw material into something that’s usable at the end.” To do that, a manager for a manufacturing firm might have to put any instant-oatmeal dreams of white-collar office work on hold for a little while:

“What’s real important is understanding the process you have under your control—where the bottlenecks are, where the problem areas are, understand the skill set that is required to produce in that particular area, understand the personalities of the people who have those roles and responsibilities, and how they get them, whether that’s a union environment or a non-union environment. You need to understand that, because that has a big impact on your ability to motivate them to do the work you needed to be done.”

So Gray, 56, now a purchasing manager-chassis systems and corporate supplier diversity (internal) for International Truck and Engine Corp., took his experience and his Central Michigan University MBA (then called a Master’s of Art in Business there) to the Cummins plant floor, to see—and sometimes do—the work first-hand, even if only for a half an hour.

“It didn’t bother me to go down (there) and really find out what it’s like,” he recalled. “But it helped me when I wanted to move people around and ask people to do things, understanding here’s what they do all day, here’s what the likelihood that they’d be willing to do certain things, here’s certain things they wouldn’t do, or would not be willing to do with some motivation.”

The first time he did that was about 20 years ago. But his experiences and tactics, which he brought to other manufacturing companies throughout his career, foreshadowed the new world of the MBA in manufacturing. It’s one in which that upstairs office is earned on the floor through mastery of technical skills instead of in school pushing paper. That’s not only what the 21st century global marketplace wants and needs, it’s what’s required to be a 21st century entrepreneur.

“Many times, when we go back to school or if we go straight through our educational program to an MBA, we think about the office jobs—you want to manage this, promote this,” Gray explained. “We think about the glamour side of being an MBA, without getting to the details of how products are produced. So I think it’s really important that more (MBAs), especially (racially) diverse MBAs, pursue opportunities in the manufacturing environment. Because if at some point in time you have an interest in becoming an entrepreneur, you need the skill set.”

And that set—knowing not just how to manage people, but how all the parts fit together, symbolically as part of the supply chain and literally on the plant floor—is something that has to be learned and earned. But why go through all the hassle? Because manufacturing “is one of the primary sources of wealth creation in this world,” declared David J. Burton, president and CEO of the National Minority Manufacturing Institute. The Rockville, Md.-based association provides data about high-performance minority manufacturers to Fortune 500 companies looking to keep some manufacturing stateside. American corporations are looking to “diversify their supply base to mirror the evolving consumer base,” according to Burton, and the NMMI assists by displaying the crunched metric numbers of businesses run by people of color to corporations that are looking for them, such as Proctor and Gamble, Granger, Toyota, Merck, Johnson and Johnson, and even Gray’s International Truck.

One of the problems tracking the success of people of color in manufacturing is that there’s no public numbers. Burton claimed his organization had to create its own database because none existed. Gray said he didn’t have exact numbers for the percentages of managers of color at International Truck’s manufacturing division, but that the numbers of people of color in the manufacturing side—approximately 15 percent of the managers of managers, six to seven percent of directors, and five percent of plant managers—were “slightly” better than many other areas of the company. (On the Vice President-Purchasing level, for instance, “there’s a one-percent number.”)

However, the numbers MBA students are concerned with are the ones attached to the left-hand dollar sign. There, manufacturing has good news; salaries for manufacturing employees with MBAs can run from the high 60s to mid-80s, competitive dollars compared to other fields, according to Kim Wells, director of Career Services at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

It’s not just about pocket change, however, as it is about stability in a time of global change. It’s hard for companies to compete for manufacturing talent on one hand and lay off manufacturing employees with the other. “Great employers, great brands, great partners with a lot of our colleges and universities, but as we know things can happen and things can change,” said Wells. And the students are paying attention. “Unlike financial services or consulting, which seems to have a very strong, steady place in the market, there seems to be in manufacturing some questions sometimes, (such as) if those jobs are going to China,” he added. “Are they going to Korea? Are they going to these different places, where it’s just cheaper, the products and services?”

A lot of Howard MBA candidates, Wells explained, still gravitate toward financial services, marketing and management consulting, but manufacturing has made some inroads. In fact, he declared, a hot Howard major is Supply Chain Management, a subject grabbed by undergraduates and MBA students seeking a concentration. “That can be very hot,” he said. “I think (it’s because) that people are looking at how you can manage that supply chain. How they can get cheap parts and best talent to identify those that are designing and building, just supplying in general.” Wells added that companies like Toyota and GM have done well in recruitment, “but I still think that there’s still maybe some information that needs to go out. And I do think the industry is battling an image issue with some of the overseas issues and layoffs. And students do have those conversations with people like myself.”

Wells said manufacturing has work to do in order to court the estimated 200 Howard MBA students the way they are being sweet-talked by Wall Street. “You have the more visible, the quote-unquote more sexy careers in finance and consulting and these other areas.” For the most part, he added, MBA candidates who are interested in manufacturing are the ones who’ve already been exposed to it through internships and jobs.

But to keepers of the faith like Burton (who denied that manufacturers of color don’t have significant opportunities because of corporate outsourcing, saying “nothing could be further from the truth”), there’s really not much thinking that needs to be done by MBAs of color who want to be entrepreneurs. “If you’re interested in growing, you have to be interested” in manufacturing, he said. Wells agreed in a way, saying that some of his top engineering students are back at Howard getting their MBAs. “They’re realizing that (both) the business skills and having the technical background is very valuable to the market.”

Still, Gray admitted the road to MBA-level management through manufacturing is not smooth. “It’s tough to get there, but it has its rewards. From an entrepreneurial point of view, I think there are greater opportunities to start new businesses, and grow new businesses, but you need to understand how to make a business run. And you need that experience to do that.”