U.S. manufacturing – A look at the future work force and its needs

November 9, 2004
By: Ron Wood

When I entered the manufacturing work force more than 34 years ago, the work environment, work force, and the future of U.S. manufacturing looked a whole lot different.

Large corporations with unionized plants dominated the mass production industry in almost every category of durable and nondurable goods. The world envied our factories and the workers they employed. Foreign competition was minimal, and for most of us, a career in manufacturing was the right choice. My, how things have changed.

Many large U.S. plants have closed, been consolidated, downsized, or been purchased by foreign-based manufacturers. Smaller companies that once supported large manufacturers' operations by providing everything from component parts to tools and dies, heat treating, and metal plating also have disappeared in large numbers. U.S labor unions have seen their memberships decline dramatically, and their once significant influence on the American political scene has diminished. "Made in the USA" no longer has the prominence that it once enjoyed.

What has brought manufacturing employment in this country to the point it is today? Those of us who have been associated with it for some time can point to a number of factors. Increases in wages and benefits have made us less competitive. Improvements in equipment and manufacturing technology that have made us less labor-intensive. Certainly, the development of foreign competition in both Asia and Europe has had a significant influence on U.S. manufacturing. Another major factor has been the influence of the financial markets and their emphasis on short-term gains.

What Will the U.S. Manufacturing Work Force Look Like in the Future?

Overall, the future manufacturing work force will be smaller than it is currently, and it will be concentrated in small to medium-sized companies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2002 — 2012 Employment Projections (released Feb. 11, 2004), total U.S. employment is projected to increase by 21.3 million jobs or 15 percent. However, the majority of this growth is projected to be in the service-providing sector of the economy. Manufacturing employment is projected to decline by 1 percent during this period.

The work force of the future will have to be better trained and more technologically proficient. To maintain increases in productivity with a shrinking work force, U.S. manufacturers will have to invest in new capital equipment and modernize their production processes. This will require investments in training that will result in a more skilled work force. Applicants who can provide only a pair of hands or a strong back will not find many employment opportunities in manufacturing.

It will be a more diverse and older work force. According to the BLS employment projections, the overall participation rate for women in the labor force will increase by 14.3 percent. By the year 2012, the baby-boomer generation will be 48 to 66 years old, with the workers who are in the 55 and older group growing by 49.3 percent. By 2012 the Hispanic labor force is projected to reach 23.8 million, or 14.6 percent of the projected total labor force.

The work force of the future will require, and in many cases demand, more from their employers. These requirements will go beyond pay increases that are above the national average and improvements in the traditional benefits, such as health care, paid time off, and 401(k) plans. The work force will expect cleaner and safer work environments, more family-friendly work schedules, and more opportunity to participate in the business decisions that impact their economic livelihoods and career. Manufacturing employers that do not provide this type of work environment and reward system will find themselves on the short end of the stick in their abilities to recruit or retain the necessary skilled work force.

What Must U.S Manufacturers Change?

For the U.S. to continue to be a world leader, it must maintain a productive and competitive manufacturing base. Current projections indicate that during the next decade manufacturing will be concentrated in smaller to medium-sized companies. I believe that this will require U.S. manufacturers to do some things differently.

Employers must find ways to address the negative gap in their employees' basic education skills. This is especially important in areas such as math and reading. Partnerships must be developed with high schools, vocational schools, and two-year colleges that can provide a pipeline of graduates who want a career in manufacturing. Manufacturing jobs must be positioned and promoted as professional career opportunities in the same manner as nursing, computer programming, and similar service-sector jobs. Compensation and other reward systems must support the manufacturing skills that are required.

Capital investment in equipment and processes must increase to support the change from low or moderately skilled, highly labor-intensive manufacturing environments to the highly skilled and high-production environments. Owners, management, and the financial sector must change from short-term profit motivation to a longer-term growth strategy. The U.S. manufacturing base cannot afford to have its future dictated by short-term profit motivation. As a part of this, U.S.-based manufacturing must find a way to join together to educate and influence Congress to develop and implement a formal "Industrial Policy" that will ensure the continuance of a strong manufacturing presence in the U.S.

Employers also must address the needs of a work force that is diverse not just in ethnicity, gender, and age but also in the area of career expectations. Employees will expect more involvement in different aspects of the manufacturing process so that they can develop new skills. The work environment must take into consideration the work force's personal needs and be more family-friendly. Work environments must be clean and safe and flexible. There must be more opportunity for work force interaction and cross-training. The days of one employee, one job are numbered.

I believe that U.S. manufacturing jobs in the future will be more demanding, but also more satisfying. As the large smokestack industries of the past give way to the lean, skilled production centers of the future, opportunity will increase for the manufacturing work force.

Ron Wood

Director of Human Resources
ThermaSys Corporation
2776 Gunter Park Drive E.
Suites R-S
Montgomery, AL 36109
Phone: 334-244-9240