A Change Worth Watching

I have been to a number of smaller metal-working companies lately. None of them are hiring.

I have been to a number of smaller metal-working companies lately. None of them are hiring. In fact, the reason for my visits was to look at some of the ways that these companies have become more efficient or more productive. In some cases, the focus was on automation or computerization. In other cases, the focus was on lean manufacturing.

These companies are prospering or at least holding their own. None of the companies regrets that it is not adding to the payroll right now. Most admitted that not having to hire people was one of their objectives for investing in new technology or for revamping their approach to shop management. They have to hold the line on labor costs.

However, I did notice that the work being done by employees at these shops appears to be changing. Their jobs are more likely to have a healthy variety of duties and responsibilities. There seems to be less routine and fewer strictly repetitive tasks. Machine operators, for example, were more likely to be programming parts, doing inspection, taking care of machine maintenance, participating in improvement programs and so on.

From what I could see, the same technology or management techniques that make it possible to put off hiring also tend to make existing jobs more challenging and varied.

I interpret these observations as a positive sign. Could this be a general trend for manufacturing companies in the Unites States? Is the typical job in shops and plants becoming more challenging and multifaceted?

It seems that many manufacturing jobs will have to become like this because the companies that remain competitive in a global economy will need individuals who are capable, flexible and enthusiastic. Such companies will have to be structured to leverage the contributions of these employees to the maximum. Shops and plants won’t be able to justify new hiring until they are in this position. When they do hire, they will most likely be looking for job seekers who are closer to this profile.

It’s doubtful that manufacturing will ever replace the number of jobs that have been lost in the last few years. However, the types of jobs it does create in the future will have a different mix than what was typical in the past. When industry analysts begin to see a growth in manufacturing jobs, the whole story won’t be only in the numbers. The new jobs will not be like the old. Existing jobs will also have to change.

All jobs, old or new, must do more to sustain both the enterprise and the individual. Otherwise, these jobs cannot endure.