Industryweek 13393 Three Tiers Mfg

Manufacturing's Wage and Job-Security Problem

March 12, 2015
    Is manufacturing losing its reputation as the gateway to the middle-class?

The frustration among manufacturing leaders is palpable. After years of attempting to solve the skilled worker shortage and rehabilitate manufacturing's image, problems persists.

Worse, it's getting complicated. To quote recent survey results: "Americans want manufacturing jobs… for someone else."


The report, "Overwhelming Support: U.S. Public Opinions on the Manufacturing Industry," published by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, found overwhelming support for the U.S. manufacturing industry. The percentage of respondents who believe manufacturing is very important or important to America's economic prosperity was 90%; to America's standard of living, 89%; and to America's national security, 72%.

Yet only 37% of those respondents would encourage their child to pursue a career in manufacturing, and only 19% of the respondents had parents who encouraged them to pursue a manufacturing career.

... when we talk about manufacturing jobs, we're talking about at least three vastly different tiers... and it's the fate of the third tier that bedevils us.

How can that be when NAM's "Facts About Manufacturing" reports that in 2013 the average manufacturing worker earned $77,506 annually, including pay and benefits, 20% higher than what an average worker earned in other industries?

How can that be when the 2015 IndustryWeek Salary Survey finds that average salaries are up over the past two years -- and that the vast majority of respondents are satisfied with their choice of manufacturing as a career path?              

The authors of The Manufacturing Institute/Deloitte report find optimism in one finding: "High industry familiarity leads to greater preference for manufacturing careers and more positive perceptions."

However, a few other results are worrisome.

While 84% of respondents rank job security and stability as very important or important job selection criteria, 75% strongly agree or agree with the statement, "manufacturing jobs are the first to be moved to other countries" and 41% strongly agree or agree with the statement,  "U.S. manufacturing jobs are stable and provide job security relative to other industries."

Meanwhile, another survey question found that 66% of respondents strongly agree or agree that worries about job security and stability are reasons for not encouraging a child to pursue a career in manufacturing. (Job security and stability tied for third with ability to build job skills in job selection criteria; good benefits was first at 87%; rewarding work was second, at 85%.)

To me, this suggests there's more to explore.

I think that when we talk about manufacturing jobs, we're talking about at least three vastly different tiers: at the top are engineers, researchers and scientists; in the middle are machinists, technicians and other skilled workers, such as welders; and at the bottom, assemblers and basic production workers.

It's the fate of the third group that bedevils us.

Research from the National Employment Law Project, "Manufacturing Low Pay: Declining Wages in the Jobs that Built America's Middle Class," shows that this group not only has not gained from manufacturing's recent growth, it has lost, dropping by 4.4% from 2003 to 2013 to a wage level that's 7.7% below the median for all occupations.

Worse, production and assembly jobs appear to be top of mind among the general public, perhaps because they are more often in the news. A recent article in the New York Times, is an example, reporting: "In 1980, nearly 300 of every 1,000 middle-class jobs were held by workers in manufacturing. Today the rate is half that."

These facts are startling, striking at the heart of manufacturing's traditional economic role. Manufacturing leaders must address them in order to solve the skilled-worker shortage and to rehabilitate manufacturing's image.

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