Industry Watch

Tyler Stusynski, protégé (left) Keith Mickelson, mentor (right) of Super Radiator Coils

The legacy of knowledge

Manufacturers are pairing up Boomers and Millennials as mentors and protégés

By Brian Martucci
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

As Boomers reach their retirement years, manufacturers are trying to make sure they pass along their accumulated wisdom to the incoming Millennial workers. While the younger generation may excel in certain technical skills and what they have learned in school, they have much to learn in terms of the practical skills that are only acquired through years of experience.

Knowledge transfer

Chaska-based Super Radiator Coils, a venerable heat transfer equipment manufacturer, is passing the torch by pairing soon-to-retire elders with green-around-the-ears whippersnappers who’ll eventually assume their duties — either directly, or in more junior roles. 

Keith Mickelson, 69, is Super Radiator Coils’ vice president of engineering. He’s officially slated to retire next year, though he’ll likely have an emeritus role for some time after that.

Mickelson “has seen a lot” over the years. The 1969 U of M grad (mechanical engineering) began his career before computers — “We did lots of work by hand, slide rule and clunky old calculator,” he remembers. Mickelson learned how to calculate coil performance, among other things, from his own mentor, his first employer’s VP of engineering.  So goes the Great Circle of Life.

The PC revolution made Mickelson’s life much easier, and much more efficient. He learned to code programs that performed advanced equations automatically. Those programs are among the many bits of knowledge he’s now transmitting to Tyler Stusynski, 30, who’s finishing up his own Master of Engineering degree at the U of M.

Mickelson and Stusynski don’t follow a formal curriculum. “I’m basically just showing him the ropes,” says Mickelson. “He can pick up most of what I’ve developed just by looking at the code.”

Indeed, Stusynski is already an expert in how heat transfer works in theory; that’s what his degree is for. But the real world isn’t always so neat.

“The fundamental concepts I learn are based on ideal scenarios,” says Stusynski. “Physical relationships don’t always work out like that.” A customer might approach Super Radiator Coils with a novel application for which there’s no current solution, or a complex operational problem might stymie the usual workarounds.

And that’s where Mickelson really helps. “Being able to draw on Keith’s decades of accumulated knowledge is invaluable,” says Stusynski. “He knows so much that you just can’t be taught in school.”

Hopefully Stusynski is taking notes — he’ll need them for his protégé.

Beyond executive succession

While many Boomer executives are training in younger protégés to replace them, the phenomenon of passing the baton to a new generation is happening at every level in a company.

“There’s a large need for Millennials to be able to step into first level supervision and management roles,” says Vice President of the Manufacturer’s Alliance, Kirby Sneen. “And there’s also a large need for machinists, technicians and production leads to be able to step into their roles effectively as well.”

Book learning from the finest books and classroom learning from the finest professors cannot convey what Sneen calls “tacit knowledge,” which only comes from people who have done postgraduate work in the school of hard knocks. “Only on-the-job experience can teach you the details of an actual job,” says Sneen. “Only then can you get to a greater level of intricacy in the day-to-day, week-to-week of managing priorities and conflicting perspectives from stakeholders.”

The emotional factor

Perhaps the biggest difference between textbook knowledge and the real world is the presence of emotion. “When you’re presented with teams of people that you know well,”says Sneen, “it’s fueled with emotion.”

That’s one area where Sneen has learned from his father, Art Sneen, who is in the process of handing the reins of power at the Alliance to his son. As in many such successions, the learning is mutual. “I have learned to rely on Kirby’s smooth communication style which values relationships highly — including ours,” says Art Sneen, founder of the Manufacturer’s Alliance.

The sense of feeling is important for dealing with people, but for Detroit Lakes-based SJE-Rhombus, which is 100% employee-owned, it is important for the new generation of workers to build loyalty toward the company.

That means veteran, soon-to-retire workers literally have a stake in the company’s success; they act accordingly. Younger workers haven’t built up as much equity, and thus have less skin in the game. Amid a worsening skilled labor shortage, they’re vulnerable to poaching. Thomas wants them to spend the best part of their careers with SJE-Rhombus, or at least see the company as more than a stepping-stone to bigger things. That requires a strong company culture and a compelling, clearly communicated vision.

“Our veteran employee owners take tremendous pride in what they’ve built with us,” says SJE-Rhombus president Dave Thomas. “Our next leadership generation must have the same passion.”

Toward that end, Thomas is looking into establishing a similar type of mentor-protégé program used by Super Radiator Coils.

“Strengthening the next generation is something we think about a lot here,” says Thomas.