America's Industrial Revolution in the 19th
Century propelled economic development and served as the
springboard for this nation to become a world power.
Sadly, a number of factors since World War II
led to a manufacturing malaise that knocked the U.S. off this
lofty production perch. New dynamics are now at work, however,
which if this country responds with intelligence and fortitude
can create an "Industrial Evolution" that will revive our
A pipe dream of industry insiders?
Unsubstantiated optimism expressed by corporate leaders?
Wishful thinking from trade groups?
Not at all-if manufacturers, educators, trade
groups and even media work to fill a critical need dramatically
increasing the pool of available, highly skilled industrial
workers. Many experts view filling this labor shortage as
America's biggest challenge to achieve a manufacturing
renaissance and, ultimately, a vastly improved economy.
How did America lose its manufacturing mojo?
Is the trend reversible? And what must be done to get it
Discussing why the U.S. is in this
predicament offers clues on how to remedy it. In some ways, the
loss came as a result of a number of elements that combined to
form a "perfect storm." Among them are
Today's education priorities rarely
position manufacturing as a preferred choice. The U.S.
Labor Department came to just that conclusion last summer when
one of its economic reports stated, "Too few young people
consider manufacturing careers and often are unaware of the
skills needed in an advanced manufacturing environment. The
K-12 system neither adequately imparts the necessary skills nor
educates students on manufacturing career opportunities."
High school counselors often contribute to
the malady by directing so many of their students to the
typical four-year university program and not considering
manufacturing. Colleges and universities have some culpability,
too. Although schools may offer training in engineering or
computer drafting, how many in recent years offer instruction
in more journeymen programs for the new technical positions of
Foreign-born job candidates bring
language barriers. Although manufacturing jobs do
appeal to many immigrants, those who have difficulties with
English as a second language often face hurdles that preclude
learning the job skills effectively, understanding the work
and/or communicating well with their peers and supervisors.
As a result, manufacturing effectiveness
takes another hit. The Labor Department acknowledged the impact
of lacking language skills in a June 2007 report which observed
that the "manufacturing workforce is increasingly foreign born,
meaning that possessing adequate English skills is becoming a
prominent challenge. Employers have had difficulty finding
English language programs that suit their needs."
Manufacturing jobs went
overseas. Emerging technologies in India and China
initially resulted in a steady stream of jobs going overseas
because of low labor rates. Some countries also offered
temporary incentives in the form of abatements on taxes,
permits, licensing and training.
New skills are required.
Most of the fastest-growing jobs today are in industries
requiring advanced knowledge and skills and offer high wages,
according to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. But many in the
available workforce lack these skills and the educational
Manufacturing gets no
respect. The poor image of manufacturing in recent
years-and still today-may be the most powerful factor driving
the skilled worker shortage.
In its candid overview, the Labor Department
put it this way "Manufacturing confronts a negative image,
characterized by such phrases as 'declining,' 'dirty,'
'low-pay,' etc. Consequently, too few highly skilled workers
seriously consider manufacturing careers." Lou Schorsch, chief
executive of Mittal Steel USA, echoed that sentiment when
he told the Wall Street
Journal, "Despite being intensely high
tech and increasingly clean, policymakers still view us as a
Even from a cultural perspective,
manufacturing is not part of the American mindset, particularly
among young people and certainly among high school students and
those younger. After the baby-boom generation, manufacturing
took a back seat to newer information technologies and many
people no longer wanted to get their hands dirty. "Culturally,
we have browbeaten manufacturing to such an extent that we
don't have people interested," said John Sinn of the Center of
Applied Technology at Bowling Green University in Ohio.
Changing such perceptions is doable. Getting
there requires the American manufacturing community and others
connected to it to take every opportunity to promote the fact
The industry has changed.
Innovations and new technologies implemented in factories and
plants from coast to coast and border to border have
dramatically transformed manufacturing. Of course, such complex
new production technologies require highly trained production
The jobs are "cool" and
appealing. With such developments, workers can now be
experts and operate the most advanced, sophisticated equipment
and automated apparatus in the world. They can cut steel with
laser lights, perform laser welding and plasma cutting, operate
water jets and program robotics. Due to this,
computer/high-tech skills are needed, which dovetails with what
young people love these days these jobscanbe more fun
than many service jobs. Plus, this requires a higher education
that nearly everyone aspires to.
Wages are good. Here's a key
part of the sell Manufacturers will pay a premium for this
expertise and offer excellent, highly competitive wages.
Jobs are plentiful.
Concurrently, the workforce is shrinking so opportunities will
abound. According to Labor Department projections, between 2002
and 2012 there will be 2 million job openings in computer
science, math, engineering and physical sciences and 2.4
million skilled production jobs for machinists, machine
assemblers and operators, system operators and technicians. At
the same time, the current science and engineering workforce is
getting older. According to the National Association of
Manufacturers, more than half of these workers are already
older than 40 and 26 percent are older than
50. The dynamic is impacting our neighbor to the north as well,
where experts predict that Canada's aging population will
create a shortage of skilled workers.
Skilled jobs are staying in the
U.S. There is a prevailing mood in general that taking
advantage of low labor rates overseas may not be as
advantageous as it seems. There are intangible costs involving
political control and currency risks, and a lack of protection
for intellectual property. Additional real costs are increased
inventories and delays in time-to-market. These costs are hard
to see and harder to measure, but they are real.
The convergence of these positive factors has
laid the foundation for an industrial evolution in the United
States. Initial progress has been made. To build on it,
industry sectors and allied interests must
Team up and help drive the
process. Local economic councils, government units,
schools and manufacturers themselves need to create programs
and work together. A case in point the Chicago Manufacturing
Renaissance Council, which a couple of years ago forged an
innovative and unique partnership of Chicago's business, labor,
government, education and community leaders. The consortium is
working to educate the public regarding the image and societal
appreciation of modern high-tech manufacturing; reform the
public education and workforce development systems; and enhance
government programs for manufacturers and their workers. Such
initiatives should be fostered in all regions of the
Reach out to potential job candidates
when they are young. Who would imagine that
woodworking and welding would replace swimming and sports as
major activities for a number of youngsters who attend summer
camps? Yet such programs are starting to flourish, introducing
young people to the joy of making things and underscoring the
opportunities in manufacturing.
The Fabricators and Manufacturers Association
(FMA) offers grants for summer camps at numerous locations
across the country, each aimed at changing the image of
manufacturing for youth. Through partnerships with nonprofit
organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the
FMA provides guidelines on the basic structure of how a camp
should be conducted. The organizations then use their community
resources to develop the camps based on local manufacturing
Parents and educators should recognize the
availability of such programs and consider introducing their
children and students to these fun, learning experiences.
Get educators on board. The
education system is beginning to join the evolution, although
this is an area that often will require significant urging to
those in academia-as well as funding. Yet inroads are being
made. In Milwaukee, for instance, after years of cuts, some
shop classes are returning to local schools. Milwaukee Public
Schools re-opened welding labs at two high schools last year.
According to local news reports, the system expanded a program
in computer-integrated manufacturing and is starting a
small-engine program with equipment donated by Briggs &
Trade groups and manufacturing executives
should aggressively convey to educators the need to create
curricula that provides young people the knowledge and skills
in demand today on the factory floor.
Recognize that overseas labor is not
the panacea. There is a trend today away from relying
on overseas work. Manufacturers must understand why this is
happening-and keep more work at home.
In its June 2007 issue, Active
Magazine identified key offshore risks as including
"uneven quality control, communication breakdown because of
language barriers, political upheaval and high transportation
costs." The possibility also exists that a low-cost factory can
steal a U.S. company's intellectual property to build a rival
Government and economic leaders must
frequently communicate such perspectives to manufacturing
Overhaul the image of
manufacturing. Thankfully, new attitudes regarding
these jobs are beginning to get some traction.
In Carroll County, Md., a local economic
council has pledged to overcome the preconceived notions of
traditional manufacturing and present manufacturing jobs as an
appealing option for youth; a marketing committee was formed to
do just that.
Another prime example is "The New Steel"
campaign underwritten by American steelmakers that portrays
positive features of the industry with ads. One, headlined "The
Backbone of America," shows pictures of steel bridge girders
and highlights the industry's military and economic
Manufacturers and allied interests must
constantly inform the media about all these exciting
initiatives, work with them to help tell these stories to the
public and convince young people that dream jobs are there for
Excerpted from a white paper,
"Manufacturing Can Become Newest Green Job for Many America
Primes for an Industrial Revolution, But Where are Needed
Skilled Workers?", prepared by the Fabricators and
Manufacturers Association International.
Metals Forum appears monthly and is open
to submissions from industry and trade associations wishing to
address issues of concern to the metals community.