It is a paradox. The United States is a leading agricultural country, yet it is hard to find another society where the cultural significance of farming and “working the land” is so thoroughly diminished. Most Americans have little understanding of how their food is grown. To most of society, farming is easily ignored.
We are fast approaching a similar situation with manufacturing. U.S. jobs in manufacturing are dwindling. On one hand, we are doing less manufacturing in this country. On the other, the manufacturing that stays in this country will need fewer people because equipment and machinery will be more productive and highly automated.
America may well remain a leading manufacturing country, but the cultural significance of manufacturing is likely to diminish. Fewer and fewer Americans understand what goes on in shops and factories. To most of society, manufacturing is largely irrelevant.
This lack of visibility is worrisome on several levels. For one, it exacerbates the skills shortage. Careers in manufacturing will be completely off the radar screens of young people and their counselors. For another, the interests of manufacturers will get less attention from policy makers.
Society also suffers. A disregard for manufacturing deprives the community of the insights and perspective that come from this segment. Just as those who work the land have much to teach society about respect for nature, care for the environment, conservation and other values, those involved in the business of making things have much to teach society about the discipline of quality, a respect for precision, the complexity and power of machinery, the nature of automation, and so on.
Small manufacturers and job shops are especially vital in this regard. Like the small-scale or “family” farm, these companies represent the richest experience of the risks and rewards of such enterprises. They bring a closeness that is unique. They often can be the best informants and guides when society looks for direction on critical issues. We’ll need other opinions than those of the big agro-conglomerates, for example, in debates about genetically modified plants. Likewise, how best to meld the pride of craftsmanship with the latest production technology is most likely to be inspired by a successful job shop. But these voices must still be present to speak up, and society must be sensitive enough to listen and pay heed.
Manufacturing certainly adds value to raw materials, but its refining effect on society and culture adds a great value, too.