Doom, Gloom And The Repercussions

For a phrase that just drips with dread and gloominess, try “U. S.

Columns From: 5/1/2006 Modern Machine Shop, ,

For a phrase that just drips with dread and gloominess, try “U.S. manufacturing jobs.” Anyone following the news in recent years could only have picked up the sense of decline associated with this field of employment. There was—and still is—a widespread view that U.S. manufacturing jobs are being lost to foreign competitors.

But here’s the thing: U.S. manufacturers are struggling to hire again. Some of them struggle to find any qualified candidate.

A recent survey by Manpower Inc. captured this struggle. Out of 1,275 U.S. employers responding, 44 percent said they were having difficulty filling job positions they have available. Not all of these employers were manufacturers, and the ranking of the jobs they struggle to fill places sales and engineering at the top of the list. However, just a little farther down come positions that hit close to home for manufacturing. At #4 is “technicians, primarily production/operations, engineering and maintenance.” At #9 is “machinists.” In short, the top ten list of jobs companies wish they could fill includes manufacturing jobs in two of the slots.

That these jobs are in demand must come as a surprise to many. Even some voices who claim to speak on behalf of U.S. manufacturing have been characterizing the employment prospects as dire. The declines in manufacturing payrolls supposedly represented transfers of jobs to other countries—jobs that wouldn’t be back. But to what extent were these positions actually “lost”?

The survey results jive with what I have seen. Plants and shops are busy now, and hiring again—or trying to do so. Many are automating as a way to resist adding staff, and, in fact, the trend to automate explains recent declines in manufacturing payrolls far better than foreign competition does. Yet even an automated process needs staffing to grow at a certain rate in order for output to expand, and some plants now find themselves constrained against this very expansion. In some cases, employee prospects with basic skills appropriate to production processes simply can’t be found to respond to available job openings.

Could it be that our own fears are partially to blame? I think so. The vibrancy of any industry is affected by the number of quality people who devote themselves to it, and the news of recent years has given young people little encouragement to view manufacturing as a potentially positive vocational choice. The dark prophecies may therefore have brought a shade of self-fulfillment. If voices of gloom have dissuaded any prospective employees away from manufacturing, then those voices ironically may have done their share to hinder U.S. manufacturers’ progress.

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