Talk of bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. is already seeping into the political discourse as the 2012 presidential race heats up. If you listen to the politicians doing the talking, reshoring — or insourcing as some call it — is the key to solving America’s job woes, and most candidates have proposed plans on how to incentivize it for companies.
But listen to most manufacturers, and you’ll hear a different story. Even those bringing work back to the U.S. have modest expectations about the number of workers they will need to hire in the future. Many expect their workforce to shrink as they increase automation in their plants. As Howard Hauser, a vice president with Minnesota-based Hiawatha Rubber Company explains it, “It’s not about bringing back the old kind of jobs. We need to be creating new jobs — the technology jobs.” Listen to Hauser’s full interview with NPR here.
Like many manufacturers, Hiawatha Rubber is relying on robotics to automate a bigger share of its production. That means that Hauser is looking to hire tech-savvy employees who can program robots to take over more of the plant’s manual labor. Though these kind of jobs may require fewer workers, they pay significantly more, Hauser says.
Decline in Production Jobs
Automation is becoming more common in plants across the country. Amazon.com recently made news with its decision to spend millions on robots capable of navigating its warehouses and stocking shelves. Though the investment was intended to speed up production — not necessarily replace workers — the warehouse jobs that remain will require employees to possess skills to control and repair these robots.
Rebuilding the economy with production-based manufacturing is as nonsensical as past attempts to build the 20th century economy on agriculture, writes economist Richard Florida in a recent post on his Atlantic Cities blog. More than 50 years ago, a third of the workforce did production work; today just 6.5 percent (8.6 million Americans) do — and that percentage is expected to drop even more by 2020.
Jobs in creative and analytical fields are much less likely to be replaced by robots, and the manufacturing jobs that will populate plants in the future will demand more cognitive knowledge as well as higher levels of social intelligence (i.e. team building, management skills, ect.). For laborers, the challenge isn’t so much finding these jobs as it is possessing the skills to land them.
One of the biggest deficiencies is among workers in plants today is the lack of “shop math” knowledge, including trigonometry, calculus and applied math on the job. Those most proficient at it are older workers nearing retirement age. Younger workers replacing them often struggle with the simplest calculations, a technical school director recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“It used to be if you worked fine with your hands, you could make it. You could have a job,” says Michael A. Lucas, director of the North Montco Technical Career Center. “Now, if you cannot do a B average in math, you cannot even obtain that job, because the academic and technical skills must go hand-in-hand.”
STEM to the Rescue
More and more regions across the U.S. are recognizing this and are implementing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs at the elementary, middle and high school levels to give students the skills they need to compete in an increasingly technical workforce.
Kentucky sponsors a school that allows juniors and seniors to take STEM-focused courses while also earning college credit. Similar programs heavy in STEM-based instruction are offered in Southwest Dallas, Eastern North Carolina and along the eastern Ohio/western Pennsylvania border.
How has manufacturing changed your region? Are local plants using more automation to produce products? How can workers prove their relevancy in a field that is becoming increasingly more technical?