Renewed hope for U.S. manufacturing

November 20, 2009
By: Eric Lundin

In 1939 manufacturing provided about 30 percent of the jobs in the U.S. By November of 1943, it provided 38.8 percent of U.S. jobs. Shortly after World War II ended, the manufacturing portion was back to its prewar level. Except for a few expansions along the way, probably associated with producing military goods for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, it has been dwindling more or less steadily ever since.

In August it slipped below 9 percent.
Looking at the number of manufacturing jobs reveals a different picture. The total number of manufacturing jobs actually peaked in July 1979, at 19.6 million. For many decades, from 1965 to 2000, it never fell below 16 million. It had its ups and downs throughout those 35 years, but it seemed always to bounce back. After the recession of 2001, it didn't bounce back; the U.S. lost about 3 million manufacturing jobs in short order, and those jobs didn't come back when the recession ended.

Then again, the U.S. still has a tremendous output; by some estimates, the U.S. provides more than 20 percent of the world's output of manufactured goods. This is from a country with 4.5 percent of the world's population. And judging by the results of the forming and fabricating industry's biggest annual tradeshow, FABTECH® International & AWS Welding Show, including METALFORM, many in this industry are confident that 2010 is going to be a good year for manufacturing.

Although the attendance was lower than it was the last time FABTECH was in Chicago (2007), one editor that I know had a little trouble getting to every appointment because the aisles were crowded with attendees. Also, the expo organizers were extremely pleased to report that the number of exhibitors increased since the 2007 expo (1,043 exhibitors in 2009 versus 1,007 in 2007), and one exhibitor reported selling more than 20 machines. Not bad for four days of exhibiting. Looking forward, 75 percent of the show floor space for the 2010 expo (in Atlanta, Nov. 2-4) has been sold.

Back to the manufacturing employment situation. Manufacturing jobs are hard to find now, but in time we'll be back to worrying about the skills shortage in this country. Do we have evidence that people want manufacturing careers? Glad you asked and yes, we do. The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International® (FMA), one of the co-organizers, hosted dozens of educational conferences and forecast 320 conference attendees; it netted 327. More than 10 percent of those, 45 in all, were people who signed up on the spot.

Separately, FMA commissioned a nationwide study and found that 56 percent of adults with kids would recommend their children pursue a manufacturing or technical career. Furthermore, the conference organizers invited students from Chicago-area high schools to attend, and more than 300 turned out.

Of course, we don't have to reach 300 people at a time. Even small, one-on-one interactions can reap benefits. When leaving the expo one evening, I struck up a conversation with the cab driver, mainly because he wanted to know when to return to the expo the following day to pick up some fares. We got to talking about manufacturing and careers, and he said, "What about someone like me, who knows nothing about it?" I gave him my business card. He's already made it over a huge hurdle, getting out of Somalia (no kidding), so getting through a vocational program should be a piece of cake.

What can you do? I recommend shooting a little bit of video of something that will dazzle teenagers, including an explanation of the process and the results, and posting it at By showing that these jobs aren't dirty and dangerous, I am confident that we can win people over and reduce the skills gap, one student (or one Somali cab driver) at a time.
Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262