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Make America make again — rebuilding the reputation of manufacturing

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
The shortage of skilled labor for trades and manufacturing emerged in the 1970s and has increased since.

In the recent election, we heard that manufacturing has a special place in the heart of the electorate. There are 17.6 million manufacturing jobs in the United States, one in six Americans is employed in manufacturing, and every $1 earned in manufacturing contributes $1.37 to the economy. For every job held in manufacturing, approximately three are created in another sector. Simply put, manufacturing is the backbone of our economy. However, manufacturers all over the country are facing a labor shortage.

Bill Gray

“Uponor is hiring!” These words are clearly visible about a half-mile away from our Apple Valley plant. As you get closer, our electronic sign flashes the message that we are also offering up to $2,000 in incentives to join our manufacturing team. 

It wasn't always this way. Our seasoned employees speak of the good old days when manufacturers like us had a line-up eagerly awaiting the opportunity to come and work for a global employer where the work, wages and fringe benefits rivaled anything you could find south of the river. So, when did this turn around? 

Skilled labor shortage emerged in the '70s

The shortage of skilled labor for trades and manufacturing emerged in the 1970s and has increased since. The reason has roots in the dual notions of manufacturing plants as dirty, monotonous sweatshops and the desire that one’s children surpass their parents by striving for more prestigious professional occupations like banking, law and medicine.

Parents, teachers and guidance counselors actively steered young people away from skilled trades and manufacturing careers. Further, the shop classes – once the staple of vocational education in high schools – were shuttered and replaced by computer labs, making it difficult for kids who have a preference for all things mechanical to develop and explore their interests. As with similar issues, much has been discussed and written, yet little has actually been done to change this perception. This is particularly curious as 86 percent of Americans view manufacturing as the most important industry for a strong economy and national security, yet fewer than 30 percent encourage their children to pursue manufacturing or skilled trades careers!

What to do? For companies like Uponor, it starts with telling our story, overcoming the negative stigma and showcasing some of the opportunities that a career in manufacturing offers.

Manufacturing is more than just putting parts together. It’s coming up with ideas, testing principles and perfecting the engineering, as well as final assembly. – James Dyson, founder of the Dyson Company

Not the dirty job it once was

Manufacturing is not the dirty job it once was. Modern manufacturers are on the leading edge, pushing technological boundaries in areas like robotics, automation and 3D printing. At Uponor, we are experts in extruding and crosslinking polyethylene pipe (PEX) for use in plumbing and indoor climate systems. Our teams solve challenges in polymer chemistry, process engineering, application and design as well as distribution and logistics and people leadership. Entry-level jobs in manufacturing can be a steppingstone to careers in engineering, supply chain management, human resources, sales or marketing.

Much has been written about the last great recession and the lackluster recovery. Some economists have gone as far as to describe this as a lost decade, referring to dismal economic growth that has accompanied the recovery. In recent months, a picture is emerging that seems to point toward the role that the high level of student debt is playing. Some estimates are that normal household formations – a key driver in the new home construction market – have been delayed by as much as 7 to 9 years as a whole generation of our young people have been forced to cohabitate or live with parents while they work toward paying down their over-sized college debt. This is exacerbated in that the education and skills attained in the average four-year college degree are not necessarily those prized by the market. Experts have noted that due to the impact on the economy, our politicians need to treat this high-debt-to-low-income problem as a serious public policy issue.

An exception: manufacturing and skilled trades

One exception is in the manufacturing and skilled trades sectors. On average, new hires in manufacturing require less upfront investment of dollars and time in education and earn an average of 38 percent more than their non-manufacturing counterparts. This translates into a 17 percent premium over a career. Coupled with the fact that 9 out of 10 manufacturers offer generous benefit packages that cover health and wellness and allow workers to not only save for retirement, but also invest in their own education and development.

At Uponor, we say, “Come for a job and stay for a career.” We have many examples of people who started in entry-level manufacturing and warehousing positions who, through personal initiative and company support, have gone on to pursue their dreams while supporting their families and making a difference.

I firmly believe that a nation’s identity is inextricably intertwined with the products that it manufactures. We are what we make. It is time to restore manufacturing and skilled trades to the place they deserve by encouraging public policies that promote and encourage our young people to consider these as viable careers. To paraphrase our president-elect —  “Make America make again!”

Bill Gray is the president of Uponor North America, headquartered in Apple Valley.

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Comments (14)

Maybe

The good old days aren't coming back. In 1975, the year I would have graduated from high school, the manufacturing sector employed more than 15 million Americans. Manufacturing output, as measured in 2005 dollars, was around $1.5 trillion. In 2009, manufacturing employed around 10 million people, but output was over $3 trillion.

American industry is doing more with less, and the "less" means fewer workers making less money ,, in absolute terms, than they did back in the day. Pushing technological boundaries in areas like robotics, automation and 3D printing means that not only is manufacturing cool, and clean and tidy, but it is going to require fewer skilled, and well-paid, people.

The average wage for workers in manufacturing looks like it has remained pretty stable, in absolute terms. Are the "generous benefit packages" today anything like they were back then? How about those pensions?

Manufacturing is growing but jobs are not.

Are you going to believe your lying eyes?

The above comments aside, drive around town and note that virtually every automated manufacturing facility you see will have a sign out front looking for skilled workers. Technical college programs in manufacturing skills have almost all of their students placed before they graduate. The days of low skilled 18 year olds getting union jobs that guarantee security for life are pretty much gone, despite what our President-Elect may promise rust belt and coal belt "make America great again" voters; but, there are plenty of jobs for those who prepare for them. And as Mr. Gray points out, the cutting of technical ed classes by industrial technology illiterate school administrators is not helping fill the need for new manufacturing workers.

It is true

I've helped design automated systems in the past. You'd be amazed by what they can do besides replace dozens of people on an assembly line. As one of my bosses said to me, "they don't need breaks, wages, are never late, never sick, and don't require a pension". All pluses to the Corporate structure. When I asked what happens when people can't afford to buy their products because they don't have jobs he just waved it away and walked away. Not his concern.

I once got into a discussion with an economist who favors this trend. I said that he and those of like minds view the world as divided into three groups, workers, consumers, and business and they want to get rid of the workers. And that is the mistake they make, the consumer needs a worker to provide the money to buy the product so where will that come from? His answer was that the main consumers in the US are wives and children so that's where their (the business) money will come from. When I asked where the wives and children will get the money he ended the conversation.

That's going to be a problem.

Automation levels the playing field

Let's say we have two companies both with similar manufactured products. The first sticks with a labor intensive, minimal automation approach to their manufacturing challenges. The second aggressively implements automation at every opportunity. Both have similar manufacturing costs: one company is spending on wages the other is spending on things. Which one survives? Oh, wait, I forgot about the third company. It's in Viet Nam and also follows a labor intensive, minimal automation approach to their manufacturing challenges. Which one survives? The first one certainly does not and it's jobs go away 100%. The second and third fight it out and, increasingly, highly automated Minnesota companies win this battle, keeping highly skilled, highly paid jobs here. Automation is key to our keeping manufacturing jobs here.

Another point of view:

Nice article: I also come out of manufacturing, (sales and Marketing) started on a Iron foundry floor, and call myself and industrialist. We are past the automation, we are at the technological integration capabilities of equipment, accuracy, repeat ability, tolerance control, precision etc. But I digress: A similar argument could be made for construction mining, building, etc. Heavy equipment has displaced many workers, trenchers replaced ditch diggers many years ago, but now folks need to build the trenchers, modern tools nailers, saws, laser levelers etc. are more efficient, safer, productive, but someone has to build those tools, computers have reduced the need for numerous clerical workers, memo writers, haven't seen a typing secretary since the 1990's, but someone has to design and manufacture the chips and associated Hardware, as well as the software. The point being it is complicated and getting more and more technologically challenging. What is the term, to stay up you need to "Up your Game" or fall behind and drop out. Welcome to the 21st century!

Technology and automation has cut

down on the amount of workers for the past 3 decades, no disputing that. But to say we can't manufacture products here is just not true. If a plant that used to hire 1,000 workers to do the job now hires 600 because of automation, let's have those 600 jobs here in the USA. Manufacturing still requires workers just not as many as 30 years ago, let's have them here . It's like folks arguing as to the amount of jobs saved at Carrier, 600, 700, 800 or 1,200 it is still jobs saved and families having security. It seems like those on the left just want manufacturing to go away, why?

No...

Its those on the right that believe we can revive our coal economy to 1950's levels, pick a few winners from failed rust belt companies (Solyndra bad, Carrier good) that like to talk up their support for manufacturing; but, fail when it comes to actually doing something about it. Like funding STEM programs, incentivizing industries that provide manufactured energy solutions like wind and solar their words are never backed up by action.

Edward, Brookings Institute estimates the US Govt

will spend 150BILLION on green energy from the 2009 stimulus to 2014!! Is that not enough for the industry to thrive or do you want more?? Saving 1,000 Carrier jobs with money from the state of Indiana is so different than a 500 million loan guarantee to Solyndra that we as a country lost 448 million on. The state of Indiana gave 7M over 10 years to Carrier, stimulus gave 500M of our federal tax dollars to Solyndra in hopes it could create jobs. States should compete for jobs and businesses, Fedreral Govt should set business friendly policies that encourage more manufacturing/production here in the USA.

Obama's you didn't build this message along with taxes and regulations didn't help the working class one bit, that is why Hillary lost!

So different

You're right, one creates new jobs from nothing, one pays several million dollars TO ship at least 200 or so jobs offshore. Not sure you want to keep up this comparison.

Actually

The tax savings didn't cost Indiana anything, if all the workers had gone... They would have gotten $0 from that part of the company and those employees. Now the state gets to continue collecting... Definitely a win / win.

Too bad manufacturers killed the Unions.

People don't realize the role that labor unions played in promoting and training the "skilled" workforce. Union dues and high memberships played key roles politically, socially, and economically everywhere from school boards (who decided what to do with all those "shop" classes) to the high wages and stable employment that manufacturers offered.

Companies always fight this tooth and nail, they shipped as many jobs as they possibly could out of the country seeking lower wages for un-organized work forces, and those they couldn't physically ship out, they off-shored. Remember the 90s? We would told not to worry about all the jobs being lost to off-shoring and outsourcing and cheaper workers because trade deals because we'd just make new jobs. Clinton bragged about the jobs he was creating but the refrain was: "Yeah, I know, I've got three of them."

You bash unions you bash workers. You bash workers, nobody wants to be one. And then you can't figure why nobody wants to work for you?

So how does a guy write a whole article about how great it is to work for his company but mention a single starting wage?

Could have saved him a LOT of space

Would he just have typed: Please relieve our temporary labor shortage by funneling as many folks into the exact narrow niche we need to fill to meet our demand. Then when the supply of labor exceeds demand we can get our wages back where we really want them to be, rock bottom. Thanks!

Seriously, how conservatives can be so adamant about applying capitalistic forces to every aspectnof life, yet so blantantly obtuse in applying it to the labor market is befuddling. Why anyone in a lucrative career field would be excited about the prospect of wage deflation is a mystery to me.

Better than Alternative

The reality is that these jobs pay a lot better than most service industry jobs. Likely >$15/hr + benefits + career growth options. Now you can keep sending kids to Walmart, Target, McDonalds, etc or we can point them somewhere better.

As for the growth or decline of the American Mfg industry, that is in our hands as consumers and citizens. If we are unwilling to pay more for American Made Products to support the higher paid employees, who will? And if we want more factories / jobs, how do we lower the cost of running them in the USA? (ie taxes, regs, paperwork, etc)

Along those lines, I am absolutely fascinated by how many people my company has working in Human Resources, Finance, Compliance, Legal, etc. It is good that we employ these people, but they add almost NO VALUE for our customer. And adding value for the customer is what makes companies successful.