Popular Misconceptions About Manufacturing

Feb. 4, 2015
Boarded-up factories dominated manufacturing news for years, but those worn images fail to convey the technological transformation U.S. manufacturing is undergoing.

“Today, the state of manufacturing is as resilient and robust as ever – and that’s why, once again, America is rising.” That’s the message NAM President Jay Timmons delivered at Purdue University, one of the stops on his barnstorming tour of the United States to promote manufacturing.

Indeed, despite some headwinds in the global economy and the (likely temporary) unsettling effect of dramatically lower oil prices, U.S. manufacturing has been on a roll. In its January report, the Institute for Supply Management noted that manufacturing has been expanding for 20 consecutive months, based on its monthly survey of supply chain executives. Manufacturing added an average of 16,000 jobs per month in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Timmons told his Indiana audience that manufacturing succeeds in the U.S. because it is founded on four fundamental values – free enterprise, competitiveness, individual liberty and equal opportunity. Timmons used that broad and patriotic landscape to push for less regulation, lower taxes and new agreements to promote trade.

There is of course a healthy element of economic self-interest in NAM promoting manufacturing, and Timmons doesn’t deny it. He reminded his audience that manufacturing contributes $2 trillion to the U.S. economy.

“The half a million manufacturers in the Hoosier State who are building cars, computers and medical devices, paper, petroleum and steel – you are responsible for 30% of this state’s output,” Timmons said. “And more than half of all the employment here has some connection to manufacturing.”

Timmons also took time to focus on two “popular misconceptions” that dog manufacturing. The first, he said, is that manufacturing’s “best days are behind it. People think of burned-out smokestacks and boarded-up factories. They think of the old ways of doing things.”

That’s just not the case, Timmons argued.

“Manufacturing is about incredible new technologies – 3-D printing, nanoscale chemistry, energy efficiency, satellite technology, medicines that are saving lives and changing the world,” he said. Those technical innovations help to create jobs, he pointed out, that “pay better than they ever have and better than most other industries.”

The second fallacy about manufacturing, Timmons said, is that it is “just about machines. It’s about people, and the potential we can unleash.” He pointed to the case of his own grandfather who left a family farm to seek a job at a paper manufacturing plant in Chillicothe, Ohio. That put his family, and many others, on the path to the middle class.

We have a whole series of articles based on research by the Brookings Institution that points out the fundamental role of manufacturing in advanced industries. Manufacturing is part of a high-tech economy right now, not in some utopian future. It is undergoing a technological transformation that will have a profound impact on every part of our society. Just think smart phones and autonomous vehicles, and you could easily spend hours thinking about how different the world is and will be because of just these two technologies.

U.S. manufacturing should not deny its part in helping to create its poor public image. Multinationals that chased cheap labor in the past few decades helped cause those boarded-up factories. And companies that invested heavily in the latest automation and too little in worker training left the justifiable impression that it really was all about the machines.

But the oft-repeated negative stories are just one part of the manufacturing story, and not the most interesting or current one. Those worn tales fail to convey the resilience, creativity and competitiveness alive and well in American manufacturing. America’s industrial commons needs to be encouraged, supported and celebrated. Let’s hope Jay Timmons has receptive audiences as he spreads a message about that part of the U.S. manufacturing story.

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