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Manufacturing Has a Serious Image Problem

Public perception has a ways to go to catch up with reality.

Across the country, Americans hold many misconceptions about the manufacturing industry. There’s a widespread belief that the U.S. manufacturing industry is in decline, that jobs are going overseas, and that the industry doesn’t provide fulfilling or well-paying careers, particularly for younger workers.

But this couldn’t be farther from reality. At Leading2Lean, a manufacturing software technology company, we recently commissioned a survey that investigated Americans’ perceptions of the manufacturing industry. We then compared those perceptions to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job website Glassdoor and the National Association of Manufacturers’ research and social impact arm, the Manufacturing Institute. Survey provider Engine polled 1,000 online respondents who are nationally representative of U.S. demographics, using a 95% confidence level to yield statistically significant results.

The findings were insightful and in some cases, unexpected. The first key finding was that most Americans believe that the glory days of manufacturing are over. The survey revealed that 70% of respondents believe that American manufacturing is declining. And 71% of those who believe that manufacturing jobs are declining believe that the offshoring of factories is the primary cause.

This is understandable given all of the media attention and flashy headlines about American companies, and American jobs, moving to countries like China and Mexico. But a closer look at relevant data is revealing.

One indication of industry growth or decline is the number of current available jobs and the predicted number of future jobs. According to the survey, 58% of respondents believe the number of manufacturing jobs is declining. But oft-quoted numbers from the Manufacturing Institute say that nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in the next decade, and 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled.

The available jobs, even at the lower rungs of manufacturing, pay well, too. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July 2018 the average annual salary for manufacturing production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls was $44,595.20, which translates to $21.44 per hour. This is almost three times the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. And manufacturing workers are commonly offered better benefits—paid leave, insurance and bonuses—than those in other industries. 

The idea that manufacturing work isn’t financially rewarding is one misconception that the industry must do a better job of correcting.  In truth, the average base pay for the manufacturing industry is comparable with jobs in the technology sector. For example, according to 2018 data from Glassdoor, the average base pay for a manufacturing supervisor is $64,118. For a manufacturing engineer the average base pay is $71,679, and for a director of manufacturing, $146,412. That’s significantly more than what most Americans expect when they think about compensation in the manufacturing industry.

Another key survey finding was that many Americans believe that manufacturing doesn’t offer a viable, satisfying career. In fact, only 55% of respondents agree that manufacturing jobs offer fulfilling careers. Additionally, 45% believe that manufacturing jobs are a good career option for younger workers. There’s a perception that manufacturing jobs are repetitive, monotonous, underpaid, and involve working in decrepit, dirty factories. But this simply isn’t the case.

In truth, the industry has evolved. I’ve witnessed incredible changes just in the past decade. The industry is more dynamic and complex than it used to be. There’s more technology, more data, more analysis, more creativity, more gamification, more critical thinking, and more problem solving. Factories more closely resemble a space station than a rust belt.

But the public perception of American manufacturing hasn’t caught up yet. Young people don’t view manufacturing as a desirable career option, and that poses a big problem. The growth of our industry depends on worker participation of all demographics. We need the next generation to see that there are real opportunities for them, from professional growth to dynamic learning environments to competitive compensation. Without a new wave of young leaders, our industry will not survive.

We’re encouraging those in manufacturing to take a stand by changing the narrative that’s associated with the industry. With data on our side, we have the opportunity to show Americans and the next generation the truth. Manufacturing isn’t declining. It’s changing, evolving, and adapting for the future.

Keith Barr is CEO and president of Leading2Lean, a lean execution systems software company.

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