In fact, manufacturing jobs are but a fraction of what they used to be only a few years ago. Why? One word: automation.
A radical decrease in the amount of manpower required to make textiles and clothing products in this country, combined with increasing labor costs abroad, has leveled the playing field considerably for American manufacturing firms.
Toss in variables like worker safety in the third world, ever-increasing shipping costs and other logistical considerations, ease of supply chain management, and of course, the growing demand for “Made in the U.S.A.” products, and what you have is a perfect storm of circumstances, all of which have led to this new “renaissance” in manufacturing in the U.S.
There’s just one problem. This renaissance remains in jeopardy as worker skills in this country continue to erode and as more and more of those handful of new manufacturing jobs out there remain unfilled for a lack of qualified candidates.
But before I go any further down that path, let me go back to this boom in the textile industry. It is critical to understand that this revolution has been a product of supply and demand and has been entirely market driven. It has not been because of good ol’ boys from the Carolinas started waving their red, white and blue banners and got all star-spangled in their decision-making.
No, this re-shoring of those industries was fueled by market factors that led managers and owners to a series of inevitable decisions. In fact, as one conspicuously successful factory owner told the Times, “When I framed the business, I wasn’t saying, ‘From the cotton in the ground to the finished product, this is going to be all American-made,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t some patriotic quest.”
To the contrary, it was because global competition and the demands of the marketplace led to dramatic changes in those two industries, and it is those changes in things like factory air quality, production capability and plant efficiency that have made the textile and apparel industries stronger and far more profitable today.
And that competition for jobs and those world market influences are exactly what the American worker needs to come to understand and needs to adapt his thinking to. These days, if you are an unemployed or hopeful factory/plant worker, you are not going to land a job in manufacturing simply because you know someone, or because you’re a U.S. citizen, or because you’ve filled out the necessary paperwork and maintained a clean record.
You’re going to get hired because, just like those textile and apparel firms in the Times story, you’ve made the kinds of enhancements to your own personal set of skills that have made it financially prudent for a manufacturer to hire you.
It is supply and demand taken down to its most-basic, most-personal level.
That’s why, as industry leaders and as people invested in the long-term economic viability of American manufacturing, we cannot leave it up to the individual worker to enhance his or her skills. Some of the most motivated and forward-thinking, of course, will take it upon themselves to go back to school or get the training they’ll need to service, build and repair the sophisticated machinery that will drive the factories of tomorrow. But we must also do what we can to systematically instill in our industries and job markets the kind of training/worker development programs needed today to keep us strong in the short term and will not put at risk all we’ve earned back over the past decade.
My take on the manufacturing job/renaissance dynamic, which remains complex and multi-dimensional, is maybe best summed up by a single paragraph from the Times story, which I found at a point deep into the piece.
“Now, companies that want to make things here often have trouble finding qualified workers for specialized jobs and American-made components for their products. And politicians’ promises that American manufacturing means an abundance of new jobs is complicated — yes, it means jobs, but on nowhere near the scale there was before, because machines have replaced humans at almost every point in the production process.”