Manufacturing, the backbone of consumer goods production in the U.S., is finding its footing in a changing world.
The computer, phone, or tablet you’re using all have one thing in common: They were designed and manufactured by someone. As prominent as it is in our daily lives, manufacturing isn’t as popular of a career path as it once was. In 1977, about nineteen million Americans worked in manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—would be inevitably successful in 2012, that number was less than twelve million.
Today, both the middle class and the pool of skilled workers in the manufacturing industry are shrinking. Professor James Connolly, director of the Center of Middletown Studies, says that because so many factory jobs in manufacturing were low-skill and the wages and benefits were protected by unions in the past, many Americans were able to hold a manufacturing job and live comfortably in the middle class. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, labor union membership is down from twenty percent in 1983 to about eleven percent in 2015.
With artificial intelligence taking over jobs in manufacturing, workers turned away from manufacturing to four-year universities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), undergraduate enrollment increased by forty-seven percent between 1970 and 1983. Similarly, according to a study by two Oxford researchers, almost half of American jobs can be replaced by artificial intelligence. Despite the technological advances replacing human workers, plenty of jobs openings need to be filled by humans, and workers can’t get by with just a high school diploma anymore.
One of manufacturing’s skilled human employees, Jon Foley, is a Business Unit Manager at Select Industries. However, Jon didn’t originally plan to join the industry. In high school, he dreamed of becoming a general contractor. But all of that changed when a family friend coaxed him into trying a year in manufacturing.
Today, he is making a transmission that goes into thousands of vehicles. When he pulls up next to a car at a red light, he knows that he made a part of it in his facility. He loves that his job allows him to be a part of something bigger than himself.
Jon is often in awe of the impact manufacturing has on the U.S. Besides providing necessary consumer goods, historically, the jobs in manufacturing have also gone a long way to lift up the middle class. But with the decline in manufacturing employment, the middle class has shifted.
A study done by Pew Research Center in 2015 reported that the percentage of Americans in the middle class is now equal to the percentage of people in upper and lower classes, combined. The middle class used to make up the majority of the American population, but now it makes up just less than half. This widening income gap is caused by numerous factors, but the shifts in the manufacturing sector and the blue collar work it provided have played a big role.
Angelia Erbaugh, the president of the Dayton Regional Manufacturing Association, works to dispel the perceptions many people have of the manufacturing industry. She refers to these as the “Three Ds:” Dark, dirty, and dangerous. Jon was one student who was able to get past these perceptions.
Jon started his manufacturing career while going to school part-time, first at Sinclair Community College and then at Morehead State University. He had taken tech prep classes in high school, which had sparked his interest in creating things, but that was not enough for the present-day manufacturing industry.
“Gone are the days when a kid turns eighteen and can go to the local factory and get a job,” Erbaugh says. “Most of our positions require some kind of skilled development.”
Despite his own success, Jon could not help but notice the trouble the industry had trying to attract skilled employees. He became the chair of the Growing Workforce Pipeline Committee, which aims to increase interest in manufacturing careers. There, he actively recruits skilled workers to fill empty positions and comes up with strategies to help change the public’s perception of manufacturing.
When the recession of December 2008 hit, many unskilled positions were outsourced to countries with lower production costs. This led to a huge loss of both jobs and faith in the industry. Meanwhile, unions, the force that kept factory jobs at middle class wages, were quickly losing strength and numbers due to laws implemented in the preceding decades. While many companies moved to countries in which work was cheaper, various American companies replaced their employees with new technology.
Parents tried to steer their children clear of the seemingly unreliable manufacturing industry, and a four-year degree was viewed as the only acceptable option after high school. Stephen Tucker, a senior manager of industry of Partners for a United Workforce, blames the recession for the decrease in manufacturing employment. He, too, hopes to destigmatize manufacturing jobs.
Manufacturing today hopes to attract driven students with the proper technical skills and critical thinking, Tucker says. Some repetitive labor jobs exist, but that is not the majority of the work that is available in world outside of a traditional college degree. Tucker explains that plenty of kids today are interested in engineering, but whenever someone designs an engineered product, someone has to put that product together. That’s where the shortage is.
Some question whether the “skills gap,” or lack of skilled laborers available, actually exists, but a survey done by The Manufacturing Institute reported that more than seventy-five percent of manufacturing companies surveyed experienced difficulties finding skilled workers.
Jon is optimistic that the work he does is a step in the right direction. He doesn’t believe the industry is going anywhere any time soon – it’s just changing. As technology advances, the people in manufacturing do as well – and those people will have to be better and safer.
Even though the manufacturing field is changing, it’s still an important part of our society. In 2015 alone, manufacturing contributed more than two trillion dollars to the U.S. economy, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Its ability to stay dynamic will help usher in a new generation of skilled workers who could change the economy for the better.
Despite its stigma, manufacturing is the backbone of the economy, and continues to be a driving force of our nation.