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Make America make again — rebuilding the reputation of manufacturing

It is time to restore manufacturing and skilled trades to the place they deserve by encouraging public policies that encourage young people to consider these as viable careers.

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

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.

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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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