Why the stigma attached to factory work?

You can’t have a domestic manufacturing industry without it

The FABRICATOR March 2014
March 14, 2014
By: Tim Heston

People should spend less time pushing every student toward college and spend more time realizing what people are actually doing on a shop floor of progressive fabricating shops. They aren’t “laborers,” but skilled machine operators and technicians—typically without a traditional four-year degree. Any stigma that exists about today’s factory worker is no longer relevant.

I wish President Obama knew more people like Steve Flesner. The vice president of business units at BEPeterson, a diversified heavy fabricator south of Boston (a company featured in this issue), worked at a machine shop through high school, went to college for engineering, and eventually landed a job at Nooter Corp. near St. Louis, where he moved away from electrical engineering and toward growing the company’s significant pressure vessel business. In the 1990s he moved to Boston and landed a job at BEPeterson.

I’m betting the part of his career that really defined how he would contribute to the economy was on the shop floor, in the machine shop. In manufacturing, that hands-on expertise is truly treasured.

The president said as much during his January State of the Union address, expounding on education programs that meet the needs of a technically skilled workforce. That’s great. But then he looked up at Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, sitting in the balcony. She’s a GM lifer, and Obama used her life story to demonstrate economic mobility. Barra grew up working-class, the daughter of a factory worker, and look at her now. Her story’s so positive, so American.

But wait—what’s wrong with being a factory worker?

At the 2011 FABTECH® show in Chicago, then Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill. (he lost his re-election bid in the 2012 Republican primary), spoke during his keynote address of manufacturing’s image challenge, which remains quite present in Congress. After all, many had parents who may have worked long hours in a factory to send their kids to college so that they could have a better life.

They know that most factory workers today do not work in harsh conditions, but let’s face it, history leaves an indelible mark. Instead of breaking their backs, the modern worker runs sophisticated machinery. But that classic, dark-and-dirty image of the early 20th century factory remains burned in their minds.

When it comes to manufacturing, many of our elected officials seem to communicate conflicting messages. The U.S. needs people with the right skills. We need more research facilities, more engineering, and more manufacturing. But we also need everybody to go to college, even though some of the most sought-after skills on the factory floor do not require a four-year degree. Politicians want more factories, and they want more factory workers, but they also want to give people the opportunity to become more than a factory worker. Huh?

Too often being the son or daughter of a factory worker accompanies some variation of a rags-to-riches tale. It implies that the factory worker remains an unskilled laborer with little education and even less opportunity, trapped in an unfulfilling life—a leftover from the days of manually intensive repetitive manufacturing.

I’m not pointing figures at elected officials. Their conflicting rhetoric reflects two perceptions people tend to have about manufacturing, and neither does a good job describing a complex, multifaceted reality. At one end is the dark, dirty, and dangerous image of a factory; at the other end is an entirely automated factory with bright, clean floors, robots everywhere, and a few technicians with hard hats walking around with tablet computers.

Both of these describe extremes. Regarding the dark and dirty image, you unfortunately don’t have to go too far back in history to find an example of a blatantly dangerous plant, and some remain. At the same time, not every manufacturing job is incredibly high-tech. Sure, people operate sophisticated machinery, but somebody still has to move parts from one operation to the next. You could theoretically build a completely automated fabrication line, but for most U.S.-made products, of course, the volumes just aren’t sufficient.

The issue of volume is at the crux of the misunderstanding. Most people think of manufacturing work as repetitive. But considering that most manufacturing takes place in small and medium-sized companies that produce dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of different products for various OEMs, “repetitive” isn’t the right word. Indeed, a job on the shop floor can be less repetitive and more mentally engaging than many office jobs.

That’s why I wish more people outside manufacturing, rather than glance at what a particular operation looks like or how automated it is, studied what people on the shop floor are actually doing. The more progressive plants I visit, the less I see workers as “laborers” performing repetitive, menial tasks. Instead, I see them as operators and technicians who handle a variety of tasks and have a comfortable middle-class life, more comfortable than many who have less marketable four-year degrees.

And they start their careers without much debt—and sometimes no debt at all. Case in point: Daetwyler Industries, a custom machine builder and contract manufacturer near Charlotte, N.C., has for years benefited from an apprenticeship program that pays students a full-time wage, even though they spend one day of the week in class and only four in the shop.

The program, called Apprenticeship 2000, was founded in 1996 by a network of manufacturers in North Carolina. While working toward their associate’s degrees, several students each academic year are invited to spend time at various places on Daetwyler’s shop floor, including machining and welding. At the end of their education, they are guaranteed a job with the manufacturer although they aren’t contractually obligated to stay. But according to Bob Romanelli, the company’s apprenticeship coordinator, many do stay for the benefits, culture, and positive work environment.

“If we’ve got to twist your arm to stay, you’re not a happy employee anyway,” he said. “We want you to be here because you want to be here.”

These people don’t have drab, unfulfilling lives, and they certainly aren’t living out the “rags” part of a rags-to-riches tale. As Taylor Lewis, COO at South Bend, Ind.-based General Sheet Metal Works (also profiled in this issue) recently put it, manufacturing technicians “are in fact ‘knowledge workers’ as much as anyone who wears a suit and tie to work.”

Perhaps the factory stigma will fade within a generation or two. I hope it does. After all, the factory worker—that is, the skilled technician—makes the products others have researched and engineered, and you can’t have a domestic manufacturing industry without them.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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