Can the US shift out of a destiny as a service economy?
Talk reshoring and you get a very mixed bag of opinions. Greater cost analysis is going on at OEMs, and regional US contract manufacturers are starting to see the benefits. But, a compelling counterargument is that serious skills shortages could make attracting workers difficult, particularly as the economy recovers.
The current generation entering the workforce has been sold on the concept that manufacturing is not a growth industry, and the future is in a service economy or in very high-end technical careers. As a result, younger workers aren’t excited about manufacturing careers. But is this really that big an issue? Can we change the playing field?
I’ve never felt that a service economy was a good path. A conversation I had with a production worker in the 1990s reinforced that. I was leaving one contract manufacturer for another, and my colleague thanked me for working there. I had done a good job, she said, because when I had taken over the sales team I started bringing in more business, which in turn made her feel more secure about her job. She went on to say that before coming to work for that company, she had been working three low-wage (service sector) jobs to make ends meet. She hardly saw her kids and had no health insurance. With a manufacturing job, she was able to work a single shift, be home for the kids and gain health insurance. That conversation taught me that contract manufacturing wasn’t simply a business concept. It helped change people’s lives.
The reality is that we can change the playing field, but only if we take the time to educate those who aren’t in manufacturing about what production means to a healthy economy. Here are a few places to start:
Your kids. Make sure your kids understand the benefits and excitement of a manufacturing career. Encourage math and science study. Build DIY kits at home. In short, teach the excitement that comes with helping to create the latest gadget.
Why should we care if the US has a strong manufacturing base? Two reasons. First, not every child has the aptitude for college. Manufacturing jobs have been one way those kids could still have a well-paying career. More important, a strong domestic manufacturing base is important to national security. The more dependent we become on other nations for critical components and products, the less we control our destiny.
To me, the biggest challenge we face isn’t a skills shortage. Instead, it is ignorance and bad attitudes. Look at any low labor cost region that is growing its manufacturing base, and you won’t hear concerns about the educational levels of the workforce or discussion about spending more on schools. Companies that see benefit in expanding their businesses train the workers they need and often get incentives from their respective governments for doing it. We used to do that here. At one point in the ’80s, 90% of the world’s personal computers were built in Arab, AL, by retrained chicken pluckers. The difference today is that while the workforce in Arab loved the idea of better compensation and the ability to work in a climate-controlled factory because it was a step up, many of today’s potential workers see a factory job as a step down. For manufacturing to truly grow, that perception must change. Help the manufacturing base continue to grow by putting the right “spin” on the value of careers in manufacturing.