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Tool man

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Elite Aviation Products President and CEO Dustin Tillman and John Ratzenberger testify before legislators about the plight of American manufacturers. Photo: Elite Aviation Products

This story was originally published in 2015 as a web exclusive and updated for the July/August 2016 Top WebEx issue.

Putting trade skills back into the vocabulary of America’s youth

July/August 2016 - What would prompt a multi-Emmy-nominated actor to join forces with an aviation parts manufacturer? For John Ratzenberger and Elite Aviation Products Owner Dustin Tillman, the answer is rooted in a shared ideology best summed up by Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. “The planter, the farmer, the mechanic, and the laborer ... form the great body of people of the United States,” said Jackson. “They are the bone and sinew of the country.”

Ratzenberger, also a screenwriter, director, producer, author and an entrepreneur in his own right, is best known for his role as mail carrier Cliff Clavin on NBC’s long-running series “Cheers.” His work in multiple Pixar films and parts in “Superman” and “Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back”—films whose combined box office receipts netted $300 billion—make him the sixth most succesful actor of all time. As an entrepreneur, he created packaging that uses biodegradable and non-toxic recycled paper.

But the role that means the most to Ratzenberger is one he has been “playing” for more than 20 years—as the voice of American manufacturing and as an advocate for restoring American jobs and reaching out to the nation’s youth to raise up a cadre of skilled workers. 

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Alert to kids who demonstrate interest in making things: Ratzenberger believes that getting students intrigued with trade and industrial crafts is crucial. Photo: John Ratzenberger

Sowing seeds

“Politicians, actors and musicians didn’t build this country,” he says. “It was people who knew how to use tools to make things. I do a lot of corporate speaking around the country and that is [my] central theme: the importance of teaching our kids how to use tools for the sake of America’s future.”

Ratzenberger was a house framer and carpenter when he began his career in the performing arts. “If you teach kids how to make something with their hands, you are building real self-esteem. Not the counterfeit version that comes from giving kids trophies for participation. It’s so important to teach kids a skill that no one can take away from them. If you have a skill, you will always be able to put food on the table.”

In his quest to implement initiatives that prevent trade skills from disappearing altogether, Ratzenberger has worked with thousands of small manufacturers, including Irvine, California-based Elite Aviation Products.

“I’ve always been patriotic,” says Tillman, president and CEO of Elite. “My father was a veteran so I was exposed to a strong love of country at a young age. The principles of patriotism go hand in glove with a strong work ethic and the fundamentals we need to revitalize the state of manufacturing—things like pulling together for the common good, pride in one’s country and a willingness to share in the burden to keep America going.”

Tillman considered joining the service himself but discovered that his true calling was business. “I dove deep into the aerospace market early on and recognized that a lot of the inefficiencies I observed stemmed from a deficit in the American spirit.”

Certified to AS 9100 Rev C and ISO 9001 standards, the fabricator designs, engineers and manufactures aerospace components. “As a business owner, when I look at the U.S. from a macro perspective, I see something missing. We need an injection of enthusiasm and grit, something that would reignite the flame.”

Elite is fast-tracking its growth to meet the needs of an underserved segment of the aerospace industry. 

“The aerospace sector is experiencing tremendous demand pressures that could suffocate the market,” Tillman explains. “They have not seen a manufacturer with the capability to grow and become the supplier they need.” Elite has committed to creating products and processes “that are repeatable and scalable,” maintain its position and “leverage it for future growth.”

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Photo: John Ratzenberger

Grass-roots movement

With a 2015 acquisition that tripled Elite’s manufacturing capacity, aerospace OEMs are taking notice. Elite’s singular business approach also prompted one of its investors—a friend of Ratzenberger—to introduce the two men. “He said, ‘You guys have to meet. You are doing exactly what John has been evangelizing about for a long time,’” recalls Tillman. Soon after, Ratzenberger became Elite’s chief advisor of industrialization. 

Tillman and Ratzenberger testified in May before the U.S. House of Representatives Small Business Committee, chaired by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). The hearing, titled “The New Faces of Manufacturing,” explored the challenges facing small businesses impacted by a changing manufacturing climate. 

Ratzenberger shared his experiences working with companies, legislators and the education system on ways to tackle the growing loss of the nation’s skilled workforce. “When I first started this work, I thought people just weren’t paying attention to the fact that a skills gap was imminent,” says Ratzenberger,” author of “We’ve Got it Made in America: A Common Man’s Salute to an Uncommon Country.” Now, he says,“I tend to think it was on purpose. If you want people to be independent, you teach them skills when they are young. If you want to ensure that people are helpless and dependent, you remove that from the equation.”

Having started foundations, talked with elected officials and government administrators and visited school boards, Ratzenberger believes a “grass roots movement at the local level is the best way to overcome this challenge.

“People who have moved civilization forward—from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs—had one thing in common: They were all tinkerers. They knew how to fix things. You can be a CEO, but it’s pretty handy if you also know how to fix your own screen door.”

Under Ratzenberger’s direction, Elite sponsored the University of California-Irvine team that competed in the SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition held earlier this year.  UC-Irvine engineering students competed against 120 teams to build a scale model of their version of a high-speed train that could travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco. 

When visiting schools, Ratzenberger is alert to kids who demonstrate interest in making things. Getting students intrigued with trade and industrial crafts is crucial. “The median age of individuals who have the capability to repair, make and assemble things is 58,” notes Ratzenberger. “It will be an interesting next 20 years. Stores like Lowes, Home Depot and Ace Hardware may not have [DIY] customers in the next 15 years.”

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From left, John Ratzenberger, Elite Aviation Products Chief Operating Officer Zeeshawn Zia and Elite President and CEO Dustin Tillman. Photo: Elite Aviation Products

Untapped talent

Ratzenberger and Tillman are also engaged on another front: Tapping the underserved reservoir of skills possessed by veterans.

Tillman and his partners had an eye-opening experience about the needs of service members when they attended Sky Ball XIII with Ratzenberger in 2015. The annual event is sponsored by American Airlines in support of a nonprofit-organization established by the Dallas-Fort Worth Airpower Council to raise money for the members of the military and their families. Up to half a million veterans are attempting to adapt to civilian life. One of the biggest contributors to stress among vets is an inability to find a job.

Tillman established the Elite Veterans Initiative to help veterans translate their skills learned while in uniform to a civilian career. For veterans whose skill sets aren’t a good fit for aerospace component manufacturing, the Elite Veterans Initiative is equipped to train and match these individuals to appropriate job openings in other markets.

“As an employer we knew we had to partner with these folks and the organizations they are attached to,” says Tillman. “Veterans epitomize the things we value in an employee such as honor, integrity, loyalty, discipline and technical acumen. As a company in the U.S., it’s a no-brainer to use this great pool of talent.”

Tillman and Ratzenberger hope that Elite’s message will inspire other companies to consider hiring veterans, but both men find that a lack of knowledge is a stumbling block. 

“We discovered that most managers in our industry weren’t knowledgeable about how the skills sets of veterans can translate over from military service,” Tillman says. “That revelation was astounding. If every company did their part, we could eradicate unemployment among veterans. It’s also a way to inject some new blood into the American spirit and jump-start the ingenuity I know this country is capable of.” FFJ

Sources

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