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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Business, Economy, Education, Featured, Science & Technology | 12 comments

The Real Problem With Manufacturing

0419_manufacture_630x420I spent my most working career in manufacturing.  Initially it was as a production operator but most of it as a manufacturing engineer.  I found both rewarding.  As the economy improves manufacturing is returning to the United States but there is a problem – the people who have customarily filled the manufacturing jobs are aging and retiring and the young people are not interested in manufacturing jobs.

A couple weeks ago, Daniel Grigg had two problems with the career fair he hosted at Greensboro Technical Community College, where it’s his job to get graduates on payrolls.

The first problem was theoretically a good one: He literally did not have enough space to host the number of factories with open positions for machinists, welder, and technicians. The second, though, has proved harder to solve: He doesn’t have enough people equipped to fill them.

Community colleges have the classes to train people for these well paying jobs, in the past I have taught such classes myself but they still have few takers.

But why has it been so hard to get students — both young and old — to act in their own financial self-interest? Well, Grigg says, manufacturing jobs just don’t sound that glamorous. “They want to do what you’re doing right now, or they want to be engineers,” he says. “I think part of it is a misconception of what manufacturing looks like in 2014, and I think there’s still a stigma about community colleges.”

My jobs in manufacturing were often not glamorous but always rewarding.  As an engineer I worked long hours but traveled throughout the United States, Japan and Europe.  The reward of producing a successful product was a thrill.  So is it just a PR problem?

The industry sure does looks a lot different these days. It’s typically clean and sanitary, with robots to do most of the heavy lifting and powerful machines instead of belching furnaces. But that image hasn’t translated to the young people looking for jobs in a tough economy — or perhaps more importantly, their parents, who might have learned from hard experience that manufacturing jobs disappear and a four-year college degree is the only sure route to the middle class.

“One of the difficulties is helping people understand our labor market demand,” says Ann Franz, executive director of the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, which is funded through a federal workforce development program. “Parents really need to understand, ‘What are the jobs available in our area, so I can counsel my child on what occupations that will allow you to find a job on the other end?'”

I suspect there are several issues here.  The first is perhaps many of these young people have seen their parents lose their manufacturing jobs to outsourcing.  Another is perhaps they hear about those in finance making millions of dollars a year.  Or perhaps the have just given up.

Edited: I changed “all of my working career ” to “most of my working career” since I did work for the DIA for four years.

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  • slamfu

    Ah I’ll just go ahead and say it since I’m all of the ripe old age of 38. Kids these days are pussies and too lazy to earn it the hard way even if it does pay. I should know, most of my adult life I was one of them 🙂

    Where do I go to get my card officially stamped for being middle aged now?

  • STinMN

    Another issue with the “New” manufacturing jobs: Low pay. At the plant I work with they can’t hire enough welders or machinist. They can’t get them to show up for interviews once the candidates find out that starting pay for an experienced welder or machinist is $12.75/hr. The problem is obviously a lack of workers.

  • @STinMN
    That sounds like an isolated problem and the plant you work at will probably not survive. The last company I worked for payed entry level assemblers more than $12,75 an hour and skilled technicians more than $20.00 an hour.

  • slamfu

    Lack of workers will cause wages to go up. Once employment dips below 6% we can expect that to happen in a more broad based fashion across the whole economy.

  • The reality of automation and robotic assembly is real and necessary. A human could not assemble that circuit board in your computer but a crew of trained technicians is required to operate and monitor the industrial robots that do the job. As an engineer in electronics for over 40 years I have seen the technology go from from point to point hand assembled circuit boards to plated through hole machine inserted parts and then surface mount parts many of which are almost too small to see. If young people are not willing to get the training necessary to fill these manufacturing jobs manufacturing will not return to the United States . A successful economy depends on turning raw materials into products not rubbing money together to make more money.

  • ShannonLeee

    There is a lot of talk about the new “creative class”. Kids want to create, design, and develop. They want to work odd hours in a googlish type of company. I dont think, they wan to build the same thing over and over again. These are jobs that will end up going to the new middle class in India and China.

  • SL
    The bottom line is there are not enough of those “creative” jobs to employ everyone here in the US just like there are not enough jobs in finance. There are plenty of opportunities in manufacturing to be creative. Even if you are a production worker you will be rewarded for coming with a better way to build something.

    I dont think, they wan[‘t] to build the same thing over and over again.

    The manufacturing facilities I worked at moved people around frequently so they were not building the same thing over and over again.

  • slamfu

    Ron, question for you. At its peak apparently 26% or so of the US economy was based on manufacturing, and last I checked that has dwindled to 19%. I was wondering if you know, does building construction count as manufacturing, or is it strictly factories turning out finished goods?

  • @slamfu
    That’s an excellent question but one I don’t have the answer to. I’ll do a little digging. My thought is it should be but I think they are considered separately.


    I think that no one should underestimate the first factor you listed, Ron. No one trusts any manufacturing job to stay in this country. Heck, programming jobs have been shipped overseas at such a rate that there are people in the field who tell their kids it’s not an area to go into. The whole STEM education mantra is looked at with suspicion by the many people who have seen the jobs you can get with that education shipped overseas or had the wages suppressed by that factor. In addition most modern American business management doesn’t believe in investing in the future with jobs in research and development. And of course academia has been knee-capped as well. Oddly enough all those people calling for cuts in government agencies that have underwritten scientific research in many fields don’t think there are consequences. Remember, the free market fixes everything.

    The Washington Post had an article about it. So did a blog at Discover Magazine. Even IEEE Spectrum agrees: “The STEM Crisis is a Myth“.

  • No one trusts any manufacturing job to stay in this country.

    And Jim I see that as a serious mistake. China has a lot of problems. First of all there is a developing labor shortage because of the decades long one child policy. There are frequent power outages which forces companies to have diesel powered backup generators and last but not least there is China’s massive pollution problem which can close airports and highways for days. China is becoming less attractive every day. With the BJP party coming to power in India I suspect we can anticipate increased instability in that country. The code sweat shops there may soon look much less attractive and India is already losing many of their call center jobs to the Philippines. The steel industry here in the US is on the upswing once again because the price of bunker oil is making it uneconomical to ship our scrap metal to China and ship it back as steel plate. Manufacturing will return to the US if people are willing to take the jobs.


    Unfortunately many people don’t hear about those things, Ron. Also, more than a few executives let themselves be swayed by sales jobs on the part of those who profit from those jobs being exported. I often think that if you had a massive convention of business managers it could be pictured as a gathering of clones of the pointy haired boss from Dilbert.

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