The Future of Manufacturing Jobs

Oct. 1, 2011
Entrepreneurial startups are the job generators of an economy. New jobs come from new industries, new ideas and expanding opportunities.

“Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.”—Johann von Goethe

A slow recovery from deep recession without a surge in jobs. It’s on the top of mind for all Americans right now. Initially we heard through the mainstream media that manufacturing was leading the way out of the recession. Lately, no less a supposed authority than The New York Times has run two articles with a decidedly negative slant regarding it.

But the “gray lady” has it wrong. Its reporters fail to get a broad perspective in their urgency to publish negative news. They ignore the changing nature of jobs in manufacturing. Our columnist Jim Pinto wrote in August about how manufacturing creates wealth, but the reporters emphasize number of jobs in manufacturing rather than the overall economics. Both Pinto in this month’s column (p. 56) and Luca Mentuccia and James Robbins of Accenture in their Enterprise View column (p. 52) address the jobs situation. The important point there is that there are jobs, but the nature of manufacturing jobs has changed.

Michael J. Piore, Mitsui Professor of Contemporary Technology, and Charles F. Sabel, Ford International Associate Professor of Social Science, both from M.I.T. published “The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities For Prosperity” several years ago, with updates since. The first industrial divide, they argue, was when manufacturing went from individual craftsmen to mass production. The second industrial divide will see a return of craftsmen in a new guise. In other words, we’ll still have jobs in manufacturing, but they will be different.

Consulting firm McGladrey released its Summer 2011 Manufacturing and Distribution Monitor study at the end of August. The results indicate that U.S.-based manufacturing and distribution companies continued to be optimistic about their own companies and industry, yet their confidence is tempered by their pessimism regarding the state of the U.S. and global economies, industry regulation and government gridlock.

The report states, “More than half of respondents to the study expect to increase their workforces by an average of 7 percent, which is comparable to the Spring Monitor results. There is, however, a growing concern about being able to fill these positions. Numerous manufacturers and distributors across the country have open positions but cannot find skilled workers to hire.”

People are an asset

The New York Times writers miss a significant wealth-producing fact about manufacturing that the McGladrey report notes, “A significant majority (80 percent) of all Monitor participants are using Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing and other principles to achieve greater productivity.” Many people equate increased productivity with job reduction, but that is not necessarily the case. Lean emphasizes the value of people—regarding them as an asset rather than expense.

I am convinced that looking to established large companies as bell weathers of job creation is completely wrong. Most of them grow employment through acquisition of smaller companies. Entrepreneurial startups are the job generators of an economy. New jobs come from new industries, new ideas and expanding opportunities. In this I agree completely with Jim Pinto. I’ve seen it many times: Someone gets an idea for building a better machine or a better product—or even a product that no one thought of before. As Goethe said, thinking is easy; it’s the doing that counts. The people creating jobs are the doers.

And the types of jobs? To return to Piore and Sabel, I think the new craftsmen are the engineers and technicians who develop, build and maintain the new methods of production. They are building a manufacturing base that provides great flexibility, agility and profitability to their corporations while serving customers at ever higher levels.

Gary Mintchell, [email protected], is Editor In Chief of Automation World.

Feed Forward Blog

Subscribe to Automation World's RSS Feeds for Columns & Departments