New Manufacturing and New Workers

Some of you may be thinking that the only things I do here at the Scholl Chair are writing this column and being one half of the Trade Guys podcast (if you don’t listen, you should). However, that would be wrong. There is a lot of other activity going on here as well, and today I want to talk about our latest publication, Training the Next Revolution in American Manufacturing. This project, which addresses narrowing the skills gap in advanced manufacturing will be followed by a separate one that examines the information gap in manufacturing job placement—how to do a better job of matching job seekers with available positions.

Both these studies grow out of what has rapidly become a cliché—manufacturing is changing. What used to be—and is still viewed by many as—a hard, dirty, repetitive job that requires physical strength and endurance now often takes place in bright, clean environments where the loudest noise is the placid hum of machinery; and the tasks have more to do with interfacing with robots through troubleshooting advanced mechanical systems and software than more traditional physical labor.

There are major consequences of this change, both macro and micro. At the macro level, the most significant development is the disappearance of many manufacturing jobs. In 1953, 32 percent of all U.S. workers used in manufacturing, but today there are only about 8 percent. That does not mean, however, that we are making less. In fact, we are making more stuff than ever but with fewer workers, although the numbers are coming back a bit.

This development, in turn, has led to a public debate over why this is happening, a debate in which foreign trade often takes more than its fair share of blame. That will no doubt be an issue again in the 2020 election, but today I want to focus more on the micro consequences of this evolution, which relate to the changing nature of the work itself and the difficulties the workforce is having to adjust to that. The study was prompted—and supported—by HP, Inc., which, among other things, is a leader in additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing. There are ironies here. This technology may ultimately revolutionize if not do away with the assembly line that has been the foundation for most manufacturing for 100 years; yet the company has encountered challenges in finding workers to build and operate the machines. They asked us to help them figure out why. Our research and fieldwork led us in unexpected directions. We quickly discovered that our initial intention to look at community colleges and their relationships with manufacturers missed the larger issue of apprenticeships, which are widely regarded as the most effective path to success. Once we refocused, we identified six issues:

  1. Negative perceptions of manufacturing (hard, dirty, etc.)

  2. Regulatory burdens involved in applying for certification of apprenticeship programs and for funding support (This was especially true for small businesses.)

  3. Employer fears of poaching – that they would invest time and money in training workers who would then be hired away by other companies offering higher salaries or better benefits

  4. Employer capacity – that they simply did not have the time or the money to focus on workforce development when all their energy was devoted to simply running their business (This was also especially an issue for smaller businesses.)

  5. Difficulties in finding qualified applicants, both because the negative perceptions of manufacturing deterred applications and because new technologies demand more complex skills sets that include both traditional skills like operating a milling machine and the math and computer proficiency needed for CNC lathes and other sophisticated equipment - many potential applicants with the right skill mix end up being more interested in pursuing a four year college degree

  6. Social challenges – poverty, transportation challenges, childcare demands, and the opioid epidemic all get in the way of potential applicants entering training programs

The good news is that there are lots of programs—federal, state, and local—that attempt to deal with these issues. The bad news is that there are lots of programs because sorting through them can be complicated and time-consuming. For large companies with large needs, it makes sense to devote significant resources to building the workforce they need for the future. For smaller companies simply trying to survive in a hyper-competitive world and only looking to find two or three new employees, the challenges are daunting.

The other good news is that as the boomer generation, which has been the core of our manufacturing workforce for years, heads into retirement, there will be positions available. Getting today’s middle school and high school students excited about manufacturing careers when they want to be YouTube stars, singers, actors, or athletes (among others) remains a challenge, as does creating programs that properly train them for the rapidly changing world of work they will face. We are getting better at the latter—building programs and opening doors. Getting the kids to walk through the doors requires more work—and a lot of patience.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Subscribe to William Reinsch's Weekly Column

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.