The future of manufacturing

There’s growing optimism about a revival, but it won’t be what you think


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The other day I had a conversation with a Manchester stockbroker who was bullish on the future of U.S. manufacturing. Parenthetically, this claim and others he made reminded me of two things about stockbrokers. One is by design – they have an eye to the future. The second is that they are capable of disrupting conventional wisdom with their insights.

So what are we to believe about the current state and future of manufacturing careers in the U.S.? Recent history and economic news has shown a declining trend for manufacturing jobs for some time now. A combination of developing nations exercising their newly found means of competing with advanced economies and the Great Recession with its sharp decline in manufacturing employment leaves many thinking that work in the manufacturing sector has been left behind in the 20th century.

To see why let’s look at the reasons manufacturing declined in the U.S. in the first place. The two most obvious factors were the relatively high costs for energy and labor that were determined to be less burdensome for employers overseas. Other factors that contributed, in my view, included weaker or nonexistent unions and less stringent environmental laws. In addition, for the past few decades the practice of offshoring manufacturing jobs has been seen as a benefit for owners and stockholders of U.S. manufacturing facilities and a commonplace practice.

However it may be premature to call U.S. manufacturing finished, even though many of these same conditions still exist. So where is the optimism for U.S. manufacturing? It comes from a confluence of emerging factors that over time may mean a possible manufacturing resurgence.

For example we’re seeing lower energy costs domestically, thanks largely to more natural gas; logistical costs involved in procuring raw materials and shipping finished goods are increasingly onerous; it turns out the quality of many products made abroad are not consistently high; international labor costs can change abruptly and sometimes considerably; manufacturing is becoming more sophisticated requiring a more educated workforce; and we’re experiencing growth of a patriotic ethic that discourages shipping jobs overseas.

To what extent these circumstances will boost manufacturing has yet to be seen, but it’s worth tracking if you’re thinking of a career in goods production.

Speaking of manufacturing careers, they are more varied than many may think. Of course, we think of machinists and production technicians and the like, but there are more careers in this sector than those involved in operating machines.

Jobs requiring managing and developing personnel should continue to thrive. It’s also worth noting The McKinsey Global Institute pointed out that approximately 20 cents of every dollar of product output is in professional services, ranging from engineering to marketing to transportation to office administration. When manufacturing expands, so do these careers.

Another class of careers to consider are those in manufacturing that have yet to be invented. Let me explain. We know that jobs heavy in routine procedures performed in predictable environments are at risk for automation. We also know the manufacturing tasks that are technically feasible for automation is a moving target, depending on the state of robotics and artificial intelligence, which together are exceptionally dynamic. The work in this sector that is for now relatively safe from automation involves jobs providing innovative ways of improving production and jobs that increase the collaborative engagement between humans and machines. 

To be clear, a vibrant manufacturing sector is needed to employ many who feel left out of the globalized and technical economy, but is not our grandfather’s manufacturing that is returning. So yes, let’s be both bullish and prepared for the manufacturing careers of the future. 

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, can be reached at 603-724-2289 or bill@ryancareerservices.com.

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