Zawacki believes education system is in deep trouble

July 27, 2012
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Those acquainted with Jim Zawacki know he believes too much of America’s educational system is rudderless. The nation cannot afford to stay lodged in that condition, he said.

“I am a broken record when it comes to education in the U.S.,” said Zawacki, CEO of Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping Inc., 706 Bond Ave. NW.

“Unless the U.S. can raise the educational level of the 50 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged, we are in deep trouble.”

Zawacki’s opinion about this disquieting trend was honed to a finer point when he and Lester Thurow, then dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, traveled to some 30 countries between 1989 and 1999. In that span of time, they compared and contrasted how education in such nations as Poland, Japan, Germany, Mexico and Brazil, as well as across the United States, affects manufacturers’ best practices.

As a result, he believes too many elected officials in the U.S. are keeping a disinformation campaign about how U.S. education ranks compared to other countries propped before the voting public — and that’s a problem that has gone on long enough, he said.

“It kind of opened my eyes,” said Zawacki. “Politicians will never tell you that we’re not as good as the rest of the world.”

Zawacki also criticizes America’s tight-fisted grip on a nine-month school calendar, which he says is based largely on a years-ago agrarian economy that no longer requires students to take the summer months off.

The other educational red flags Zawacki sees flapping in the wind are too much emphasis on sports instead of academics and not enough emphasis on basic writing and reading skills, all of which needs to be united with a good attitude so that high school and college graduates are adequately prepared for entry-level manufacturing jobs.

“I truly believe education is the No. 1 concern,” said Zawacki, a proponent of fair trade rather than free trade. “No. 2: (Washington) D.C. doesn’t get it. If you’ve got a tariff on our product, put the same tariff on your product.”

Admittedly, these are not new assertions, and Zawacki realizes this. But that doesn’t mean the status quo doesn’t frustrate him.

“These parents and the board (of education) are more concerned with why Johnnie is not playing sports than why he’s not doing well academically,” said Zawacki.

JIM ZAWACKI

Company/Organization: Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping
Position: Co-owner/CEO
Age: 69
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Cascade Township
Family: Wife, Joan; six children and 20 grandchildren
Business/Community Involvement: Member of Monroe Business Association, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club of Grand Rapids; past member of Heart of West Michigan United Way’s campaign cabinet.
Biggest Career Break: Learning a solid work ethic from two hardworking parents.

To prove his point, Zawacki provides anecdotal evidence: the job applicants who pass through his door at Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping. Some of the wannabe employees are unable to properly fill out a job application, while others, he said, fail “the dress test.”

Zawacki said the answer to the educational debacle isn’t about being crafty or demonstrating anger to the powers that be; it’s about finding constructive solutions.

That’s why Zawacki answered with a hearty “yes” when Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell asked him to help encourage more companies to finance the Upward Bound program, a pre-college initiative for low-income and potential first-generation college students.

The local Upward Bound is in partnership with Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University. It surrounds students with a set of core services aimed at preparing them for college.

The best part of Upward Bound, Heartwell said during his January State of the City speech, is 90 to 95 percent of students who complete the program graduate from college at the same rate as the general college population, putting them on par with affluent suburban districts in Michigan.

The downside is an average of only 70 students are enrolled in the GRCC Upward Bound program and about 90 are enrolled in the GVSU program, due to limited federal funds.

“It’s a start,” said Zawacki.

Zawacki’s mission is to get 20 more companies to financially foot the $3,000 per student bill to finance Upward Bound, which is a yearlong initiative that includes traveling to various companies in the area and spending summers on GVSU and GRCC campuses.

“We’re at 60 to 70 percent of our goal,” he said.

Zawacki also would like to see students involved in Peace Corps-like work, volunteering to help others less fortunate.

He also believes teachers’ feet should be held to the fire: Their salaries should be based on students’ academic performance and pay for “great” teachers should be bumped to a higher level.

“I can think of two teachers who truly motivated me,” said Zawacki, a 1965 graduate of Aquinas College who majored in business administration.

That’s another thing about Zawacki. He’s unabashedly old school. He worked 40 hours a week at Walker-based Bissell Inc., manufacturer of vacuums, carpet cleaners and cleaning formulas, while carrying a full course load in college. It was an exhausting four years, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, he said.

Even though Zawacki earned an undergraduate degree, too many students are sold a wrong bill of goods that a four-year college degree is an absolute must, he said.

“I don’t think that college is the be all and end all,” said Zawacki. “Learn a skill. I need technical things coming from colleges.”

Zawacki and Ted Homan bought Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping in 1985 for $4 million at a time when it had 40 employees. Today, the privately held company provides work for 750 people: 450 in three West Michigan plants and the remainder in Kentucky and Mexico. The company had sales of about $100 million in 2011.

He doesn’t care for people who shirk responsibility.

“You don’t solve problems by looking the other way,” he said. “You don’t move ahead by saying, ‘I can’t’ or ‘It’s never been tried before.’ Today’s best is not good enough. You’ve got to keep pushing.”

Obviously, despite the rocky road Michigan manufacturers have traveled, Zawacki’s company has done something right. He attributes his company’s success to a corporate culture that includes spending two days to orientate new employees; eschewing time clocks typical of the factory floor; and enjoying 99 percent employee participation in suggesting improvements that range from how to get more press strokes per minute to color-coding the factory floor so employees know where to replace equipment when they’re done using it.

In addition, cross-functional teams meet weekly to keep track of big-picture goals that include quality, cost, delivery, safety, morale and environment (recycling and scrap reduction).

Then, once a year, a video conference between all the company locations — Zawacki calls them “trade shows” — is held among all employees, which he considers part of the company’s lifelong education efforts.

“So the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” said Zawacki. “I want involvement, not suggestions. We want people to be involved and we want to be able to measure their participation.”

In 1999, Zawacki co-wrote a book titled, “It’s Not Magic: The Rebirth of a Small Manufacturing Company.” It’s about a company that transformed itself from a struggling supplier to a leading manufacturer of springs and stamps.

“I always thought I wanted to be a consultant,” said Zawacki. “The idea of the book was to make me credible, but I never got to be a consultant.”

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