The New Era of US Manufacturing: Good News and Bad News

Recessions usually hit manufacturing industries hard, and the Great Recession was no exception to this rule in America. But since its end, manufacturing has bounced back very quickly, and we’re now producing almost as much stuff in this country as we did in 2007:

US manufacturing output (source: )

As production expanded after the recession’s end companies started hiring people, and manufacturing employment has (for now at least) stopped its long, steady slide, and has employed a steady percentage of the American workforce for more than two years:

US manufacturing employment as a percentage of total employment

As a great new article from the BBC points out, however, these people are not like the manufacturing workers of a generation or two ago; instead, they’re much better educated and/or trained. Author Jonny Dymond gathered a group of former workers at GM’s enormous Willow Run plant. The insights are fascinating:

Gathered round a table at a nearby diner, former Willow Run workers remember their first days at the plant. Now in their 50s, they reminisce about what it took to get a job at the plant.

“You didn’t need a high school diploma,” says Sterling Mullins.

“You just needed to be a hard worker,” says Gerry Gardner, “and you needed to show up every day, because it wasn’t easy work.”

Tom White grew up on a farm, “so the skills I had weren’t really applicable”.

Those were the days when manufacturing lifted poorly educated men and put them into America’s industrial middle class.

“You could put the kids through college, we had a couple of weeks vacation,” Mr Gardner says.

“And you had enough money to go out and buy a new car. We weren’t rich – I’m not driving no Rolls Royce or anything – but I bought me a GM car.”

But new manufacturing facilities in America and elsewhere today don’t need large numbers of hard-working-but-unskilled workers; they need small numbers of hard-working-and-highly-skilled ones. As consultant Ron Glazer says in the article, “The only high-paid factory work left is going be people who both programme and maintain machines. That work is going to be high-paid but it requires much higher skills.”

Unlike some other observers, I’m optimistic about the future of manufacturing in America. As I wrote in my last post, our companies are really good at adapting to changing circumstances and adopting new tools and techniques. But I’m not at all optimistic that even a large manufacturing sector will be  what it’s been in the past: the foundation for a large, stable, and prosperous middle class. It’s just not going to employ enough people to serve that purpose, and the ones it does employ will have to be ever-more literate, numerate, and good at teamwork and problem-solving.

Are we preparing our young people and those trying to re-enter the workforce with these skills? How is America doing at developing a 21st century labor force? What needs to change? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.