Best known as the know-it-all mail carrier Cliff Clavin on the television show "Cheers," actor John Ratzenberger is criss-crossing the country these days with a warning about the future of American manufacturing and the severe skills shortage ahead.
''We're approaching an industrial tsunami. What's going to happen is we're going to end up in a crisis where we can't find people that know how to use tools,'' Ratzenberger said in a telephone interview last week.
The actor, author and entrepreneur will return to the Quad-Cities next week to keynote the first-ever Midwest Manufacturing Business Conference, April 24-25, at the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center, Bettendorf. To the 700 manufacturing professionals attending, he said "I'm going to congratulate those in manufacturing because they are the backbone of America."
Ratzenberger, who just turned 70, has made it his mission to advocate for the reinstatement of industrial arts classes in U.S. schools to help fill the dwindling pipeline of skilled workers. It's a message he has taken to Congress — testifying earlier this month to a Senate committee and earlier to the Congressional Manufacturing Congress. But he also also is willing to speak to those in manufacturing and to school children to raise awareness of the critical industry.
"I can tell you we can do without actors and sports celebrities, but we can't do without factory workers, welders and carpenters," he said.
The son of a factory worker mother and a truck driver father, Ratzenberger deepened his interest of manufacturing during his five years on the road visiting U.S. factory towns for the Travel Channel show "John Ratzenberger's Made in America."
"I love America and I see this is what's going to bring us to our knees — the fact that we've forgotten how to build things, how to use tools,'' he said.
He twice visited the Quad-Cities for his "Made in America" show. "John Deere was the first show we did," he said, recalling seeing the combine production at John Deere Harvester Works, East Moline, in 2003. He returned to East Moline three years later to spotlight the Electro Freeze soft ice cream machines made by HC Duke & Son.
Ratzenberger, who was a carpenter before becoming an actor, will join more than 30 manufacturing leaders at the Midwest Manufacturing Business Conference. Others include Chicago Tube & Iron President and CEO Donald McNeely, MATRIX 4 CEO and president Patricia Miller and Illinois Manufacturing Association CEO Greg Baise.
"These industry veterans are leaders in their fields, and their collective wisdom challenges us all to advance the growth of manufacturing in the Midwest and across the United States," said Andrea Olson, conference director.
The conference, themed "Conquering Today, Competing for Tomorrow," will cover a number of topics including: leadership, technology, additive manufacturing, entrepreneurship, workforce development, digital commerce and more. Cost of the two-day event is $350. To register, visit www.mmbconf.org.
Ratzenberger's advocacy for American manufacturing and skilled labor also led to his book "We've Got it Made in America, A Common Man's Salute to an Uncommon Country" — a collection of essays from his "Made in America" travels.
He also is an entrepreneur in his own right as the developer and founder of ECOPACK, a biodegradable shipping material that replaces Styrofoam. "The crinkled accordion paper strip — that's me,'' he said of the company he since has sold.
His said the idea was born while visiting an acquaintance's shredding business and seeing the mountain of shredded paper. "I told him 'There's got to be something you can do besides taking it to the dump.'" Today, the company has five plants worldwide and has changed ownership again, he said.
His latest venture is TheGiftBox.com, a subscription box online store that offers multiple verticals under one umbrella including pets, sweets, golf fishing, travel, wine, cooking and more. Every box supports a nonprofit.
"I always told my children, first get a skill that no one can take from you. Then you can go anywhere in the world and get a job," Ratzenberger said. "Get some skill that you own ..."