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Manufacturing’s Potentially ‘Ominous’ Future

The Brookings Institute found that while 58% see manufacturing as vital to the US economy, only 17% are confident in its future.

If you’re unaware of the recent obstacles the manufacturing industry has faced, then you’re probably not paying attention.

Headwinds like President Trump’s recent tariffs on Chinese goods, and recent declines in indexes like the Institute for Supply Management’s Purchasing Managers Index inspired the Brookings Institute to conduct its most recent survey on attitudes toward manufacturing.

The national survey found that 58% of respondents see manufacturing as vital to the U.S. economy, while 14% think it is somewhat important, 6% feel it is not very important and 22% are unsure.

While those findings may seem positive, it's important to note that Brookings found substantial differences among different age groups. The institute found that 71% of people over the age of 55 believe manufacturing is very important, compared to only 45% of people ages 34 to 18 years old who feel that way.

“We found a 26 percentage point difference based on age and how important people believe manufacturing is to the American economy,”  said Darrell West, the vice president of Governance Studies at Brookings and director of the survey. “Older people were much more likely to think manufacturing is important, and I think that does have possible consequences for the future.”

As young people “move into leadership positions,”  he continued, “will that make them less likely to support help for manufacturing? Would they be less supportive of policy changes designed to boost manufacturing?” He added. “I saw that as an ominous development.”

Although manufacturing has faced a variety of different problems recently, almost half of those surveyed said they would still encourage young people to enter the industry.

“There’s just a lot of geopolitical issues, currency fluctuations and trade problems that have ramifications for manufacturing,” he said. “One thing I thought was interesting was, despite all those things, 47% still would encourage young people to get a manufacturing job, so people’s worries have not soured them on young people entering the field.”

Using Google Surveys to poll 2,001 national adult internet users between June 16 to 18, 2019, the survey additionally found that:

  • There’s not much confidence in what’s to come. Only 17% said they feel confident about the future of manufacturing, with 48% being somewhat confident, 14% not being confident at all and 21% being unsure.
  • Perceptions are mainly optimistic. Fifty-eight percent said they felt positive toward the manufacturing industry, 10% feel negative and 32% felt unsure.
  • There are mixed views on the industry’s obstacles. When asked about the biggest barrier to the manufacturing sector, 23% cited government regulations, 21% said poorly trained workers, 14% named high taxes, 8% claimed energy costs and 34% were unsure.
  • More than half see automation expanding. When asked how much automation they think there will be in manufacturing 10 years from now, 64% said they think there will be a lot of automation, while 13% said there will be some automation, 5% said there will not be very much and 18% were unsure.

The Brookings Institute plans to discuss the mentioned findings, as well as other findings from the survey at the eighth annual John Hazen White Forum on Public Policy on July 17, in Washington D.C.

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