American manufacturing is not dead. In fact, it has accounted for many of the new jobs created since the Great Recession. It will not survive, however, unless it builds up a skilled labor force. Fortunately, industry and the White House are waking up to this challenge.
Many Americans may think that manufacturing is a dying industry, no longer the backbone of America’s economy. But manufacturing employment has accounted for many of the nonfarm payroll jobs created since December 2009 – almost 15 percent of them.
And though only about a tenth of the nation’s total workforce is in manufacturing, recent productivity numbers show manufacturing output per hour is strongly improving – up by 6.3 percent in just the first quarter of this year.
Manufacturing remains at the heart of American innovation. But there’s a crisis looming: Manufacturers can only sustain such high productivity figures by continuing to develop the sector’s current and future workforce. It’s getting harder and harder to find qualified recruits for today’s advanced manufacturing jobs. And if America is to hold onto its cutting edge in skilled manufacturing and innovation, it must train a workforce for the 21st century.
You would think that with 13.9 million unemployed Americans, employers would have their pick of candidates. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Many of those laid off – especially from high-volume assembly manufacturing jobs – do not have the skills needed in today’s modern plant. Like generations before them, they worked “on the line,” repeating the same action over and over again. But those types of repetitive assembly jobs are disappearing and are not likely to return.
Today, the industry needs workers who have the skill to process parts, program and maintain highly sophisticated multitasking machines, and understand how to improve their performance. They need to be problem solvers.