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A Tale of (at Least) Two Manufacturing Worlds

July 6, 2016
    Why can't industry shake its poor image?

Once, sitting in a room of C-suite manufacturing executives, I commented about stories I'd heard about manufacturing workers who made so little, they received government benefits. The executives looked at me as if I'd sprouted horns. "We all know that Mr. X here pays well for the manufacturing jobs at his factories," insisted one.

True enough. The companies represented at the meeting have unimpeachable reputations as great places to work—even at the production level.

But that's not true for many manufacturing companies.

Many of us in the manufacturing world know "manufacturing" offers high-skilled, well-paying jobs—even life-long, upwardly mobile careers. We celebrate the increasingly "high-tech" nature of the work.

Trouble is, the general public doesn't. Nearly every survey ever conducted on parents' views of manufacturing as a career choice confirms that the old "dirty, dumb and dangerous" stigma endures. This along with other disconcerting views: Manufacturing jobs are unstable, likely to be among the first offshored, and low-paying.

A recent report epitomizes this scenario—and suggests why the "misperceptions" persist: Not all manufacturing jobs are created equal.

The survey, conducted by SME, asked many of the standard questions about the likelihood that the respondent would recommend manufacturing as a career choice. But the results included a significant number of "additional comments," which were surprising in their consistency. Of the nearly one-third of the comments, nearly a quarter responded essentially, that it depends upon what is meant by "manufacturing jobs": production or assembly line work? engineering and design? business management?

So we're looking at two (or more) different types of manufacturing jobs—and neither group appears to acknowledge the other's view.

We've tried to change public opinion by repeatedly highlighting the engineering and management manufacturing jobs and ignoring the production jobs.

It isn't working.

There remains in the U.S. a significant number of manufacturing jobs—production jobs—that earn the negative impression.

As manufacturing professionals, we must first acknowledge that the general public's view is valid, albeit too narrow. There remains in the U.S. a significant number of manufacturing jobs—production jobs—that earn the negative impression. These jobs involve tedious manual tasks, often involving dangerous machinery, and are low-paying. One recent report found that manufacturing production wages now rank in the bottom half of all jobs in the U.S., and that a third of the families of those workers "are enrolled in one or more public safety net programs."

Next, we must find a way to reinvent production work--because as long as these jobs exist, that's what the public will see.

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