Good Riddance, 2009

Turning Point 

While some years are better than others, I think most will agree that 2009 goes in the books as a stand-out for “crummy.” Change is always with us, but the financial meltdown and its tendrils penetrated far beyond anything seen in generations. There is and hopefully will remain righteous indignation toward the perceived sources that caused so much pain and suffering across the planet. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill: “Never have so few caused so much damage to so many.”

But I refuse to dwell on this watershed year. What interests me is how shovel-ready manufacturing is to dig itself out of 2009 in anticipation of a better 2010. The truth is, we are, as usual, on our own to resolve our issues.

U.S. manufacturing is, in many ways, a thorn in the side of politicians who are now reaping the whirlwind for years of neglect for this sector. As manufacturing moves toward the next decade, never has it been more efficient and productive. We’ve arrived at this point with little or no help from outside our industries.

This efficiency and productivity poses a political problem because never have fewer people been employed in U.S. manufacturing. In a recent white paper for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Dr. Chris Kuehl puts it this way: “The interest on the part of most serving in government is not related to manufacturing as an ongoing concern (except as a source for tax revenues), but its interest lies in manufacturing as a provider of jobs. Traditionally, the sector was the place that employed those who would be described as low-skilled or semi-skilled, and this served as something of a safety valve for the society as a whole.”

Dr. Kuehl continues, “In some respects, the manufacturing sector covered up some of the endemic failures of the system. Once, those that had been left behind in the education system could find work in the factories, freeing schools to essentially ignore the academic needs of the factory sector by assuming companies would provide on-the-job-training themselves.”

In 2010, that is no longer a viable assumption. Manufacturing needs a different kind of worker— and will hire them—but neither the political system nor the education system has figured out the infrastructure changes necessary to provide this new kind of worker.

As the economy improves at the end of this horrible year, indicators are trending up for manufacturing. Business in general and manufacturing specifically is getting better month to month, but unemployment remains stubbornly in place. Unfortunately, my concern is that the traditional use of manufacturing as a key component to reduce unemployment may very well be past its prime for that role.

There are manufacturing jobs to be had. Most are good jobs, however, in many of the shops I visit, the owners and managers I speak with tell the same story: The skill sets of the people we needed 10, 15 years ago are simply not marketable today.

As one shop owner told me, “Many of the skilled people I needed to get here cannot, without re-training, take me where I need to go.” U.S. manufacturing has made large strides in raising its bar to compete globally.

Dr. Kuehl says, “Any way you slice the data, the U.S. plays a huge role in global manufacturing. In terms of total value of finished goods, the U.S. provides 45 percent, which is the lion’s share compared with other industrialized countries.”

Our manufacturing sector has demonstrated its ability to adjust to the global economy through its use of technology and innovation. The things we manufacture today are higher end, with more value add, and are less labor intensive. Some might mourn the passing of the “old days,” but I believe because of the lessons learned from those old days, U.S. manufacturing’s best days are ahead, hopefully starting in 2010.

The training and retraining of the U.S. workforce to share in that future should be a top agenda item for academia and the administration.