“Manufacturing Jobs Are Dead, Long Live Manufacturing Jobs!”
From Dominant To Niche
It’s plain to everyone from Dallas to Detroit that manufacturing jobs don’t have the slice of the U.S. jobs pie that they used to. In fact, manufacturing jobs have declined from 22.1% of the U.S. workforce in 1980 to 10.3% in 2010. Over those thirty years, manufacturing lost approximately 8 million jobs, while actually increasing total manufacturing output by 85% (adjusted for inflation) due to increases in worker productivity and the explosive growth of the U.S. computer and electronics manufacturing sector. Through this transformation, while many workers were forced to move into other industries, U.S. consumers in general were grand beneficiaries. By outsourcing low-skill manufacturing to nations like China, our purchasing power was dramatically increased and we fueled the expansion of our consumer economy.
Expanding Opportunities in Manufacturing
At present, U.S. manufacturer optimism is increasing, including a sense that we have entered a “manufacturing renaissance.” The cost of labor is increasing in China, and the time and cost of shipping goods across the ocean is being viewed increasingly as a major deterrent. Similarly, the benefits of U.S.-based manufacturing, which include higher quality and faster prototyping and production turnarounds, are being seen as reasons to locate production on U.S. soil. These shifts have fueled an increase in unfilled manufacturing job openings to a level of 397,000 as of August 2017, which is approximately the same as pre-recession levels, as well as feedback from clients that finding the skilled workers that manufacturing clients need is becoming harder and harder. Additionally, BLS data illustrates that these goods-producing jobs within the economy now provide total average compensation of $39.70 per hour compared to $31.94 for service-providing occupations.
Manufacturing Jobs: Stuck In The Shadows
So why aren’t our workers pursuing these positions? We believe there are four reasons:
- The first is time. Too much of it has passed for the manufacturing workers of the past to return to the industry and receive the necessary training to take the high-skilled jobs of today.
- The second is visibility. With fewer and fewer industrial “blue collar” role-models available, manufacturing and other industrial careers have effectively gone “underground” failing to broadly influence our young workers to pursue these careers.
- The third is stigma. With the coming of the “Information Age,” and its promise of unlimited white collar jobs, America has traded its “Pride in Industrial America” for other pursuits, deeming hands-on work too “dirty” for our children. What has emerged is a stigma against blue-collar work.
- The fourth is reputation. What has emerged is a belief by potential new hires that there is not consistent opportunity in manufacturing. A misguided reputation of layoffs and underemployment has prejudiced public perceptions of manufacturing.
A Way Forward
The future is rich for U.S. manufacturing and related industries—self-driving vehicles, 3D-printing, robotics, renewable energy, high-efficiency homes, and space exploration—all of these sectors represent tremendous and lucrative opportunities for a skilled workforce.
There’s no getting around the fact that manufacturing is doing more with less. But a niche market needs specialized workers. It’s going to take a national conversation—starting with the one around the dinner table—to get the point across that careers are waiting for those ready to engage the next phase of U.S. manufacturing. Some of those discussions will need to take place at the federal, state and local government level to encourage policy-makers to improve workforce training and overhaul tax code to allow our corporate tax rate to be competitive with other OECD nations. We must remember our industrial heritage and dedicate ourselves to rebuilding it instead of sacrificing any more of it for short-term benefits. We must teach our young people that their economic prosperity depends on acquiring valuable skills, and we must eliminate our societal stigma against blue collar work… because these are good, high-paying jobs with a solid future.