From City Journal:
Who will power America’s new industrial revolution?
To many, America’s industrial heartland may look like a place mired in the economic past—a place that, outcompeted by manufacturing countries around the world, has too little work to offer its residents. But things look very different to Karen Wright, the CEO of Ariel Corporation in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Wright’s biggest problem isn’t a lack of work; it’s a lack of skilled workers. “We have a very skilled workforce, but they are getting older,” says Wright, who employs 1,200 people at three Ohio factories. “I don’t know where we are going to find replacements.”
That may sound odd, given that the region has suffered from unemployment for a generation and is just emerging from the worst recession in decades. Yet across the heartland, even in high-unemployment areas, one hears the same concern: a shortage of skilled workers capable of running increasingly sophisticated, globally competitive factories. That shortage is surely a problem for manufacturers like Wright. But it also represents an opportunity, should Americans be wise enough to embrace it, to reduce the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.
Driving the skilled-labor shortage is a remarkable resurgence in American manufacturing. Since 2009, the number of job openings in manufacturing has been rising, with average annual earnings of $73,000, well above the average earnings in education, health services, and many other fields, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Production has been on the upswing for over 20 months, thanks to productivity improvements, the growth of export markets (especially China and Brazil), and the lower dollar, which makes American goods cheaper for foreign customers. Also, as wages have risen in developing countries, notably China, the production of goods for export to the United States has become less profitable, creating an opening for American firms. The American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing expects China’s “low-wage advantage” to be all but gone within five years.
It’s also true that American industry hasn’t faded as much as you might think. Though industrial employment has certainly plummeted over the long term, economist Mark Perry notes that the U.S. share of the world’s manufacturing output, as measured in dollars, has remained fairly stable over the last 20 years, at about one-fifth. Indeed, U.S. factories produce twice what they did back in the 1970s, though productivity improvements mean that they do it with fewer employees. Recent export growth has particularly helped companies producing capital equipment, such as John Deere and Caterpillar, and many industrial firms are even hiring more people for their plants, especially in the Midwest, the Southeast, and Texas....MORE
From Mr. Ratzenberger's website:
The Manufacturing Crisis
The poor image of manufacturing during recent years - and still today - may be the most powerful factor driving the skilled workers shortage. Just this summer, the DOL, in a candid overview, stated, "Manufacturing confronts a negative image, characterized by such phrases as "declining," "dirty," "low-pay," etc. Consequently, too few highly skilled workers seriously consider manufacturing career."
A division of the DOL, Advanced Manufacturing Industry, Employment and Training Administration, also chimed in. "A modern manufacturing facility today bears little resemblance to a traditional factory of decades past," it said. "Popular perceptions of manufacturing jobs as dark, dangerous and dirty are largely outdated as advanced robotics and other 'intelligent' systems become pervasive throughout the manufacturing process."
Despite this truism, those on the front lines know an image problem remains, "There is an image that manufacturing is a dead-end type of career," Ronald Bullock of Bison Gear and Engineering recently told the Associated Press. Lou Schorsch, chief executive of Mittal Steel, told The Wall Street Journal, "Despite being intensely high tech and increasingly clean, policy makers still view us as a dirty industry."
Even from a cultural perspective, manufacturing is not part of the American mindset and makeup, particularly among young people and certainly among high school students and those younger. After the baby boom generation, manufacturing took a back seat to newer information technologies and many people no longer wanted to get their hands dirty. John Sinn of the Center of Applied Technology at Bowling Green University, believes, "Culturally, we have browbeaten manufacturing to such an extent that we don't have people interested."
While recalling the knowledge gained while producing and hosting the 97 episodes of "John Ratzenberger's Made in America" for the Travel Channel, Ratzenberger adds, "Part of the problem is the media and Hollywood often portray manufacturing in a poor light, denigrating anyone who works with their hands."
With Emmy Award-winning producer Craig Haffner and the Center for America, John is currently in pre-production on a new documentary, "Industrial Tsunami." Its purpose is to awaken Americans to the shortage of skilled workers that threatens the existence of companies, entire industries, and our country as a whole....MORE