In January 2017, the Trump Administration made a promise to increase manufacturing jobs in America, and it ignited a surge in discussions, pundit predictions and opinion pieces about the industry’s ability to compete, grow and succeed in a new and uncertain future.
This conversation is important. After all, manufacturing is America’s economic engine: In 2015 alone, manufacturers contributed $2.17 trillion to the U.S. economy. Conservatively, based even on outdated definitions of what manufacturing jobs look like, manufacturing supports more than 18 million jobs. And manufacturers in the United States perform more than three-quarters of all private-sector research and development in America, driving more innovation than any other sector. The strength of our industry and the strength of our country are inextricably linked: To achieve full employment and to sustain our leadership in the world, America needs more manufacturing.
The question is, how do we grow the industry from here? At a time when many policymakers are talking about rebuilding communities that have been forgotten, we need to show our country what we can accomplish when we support an industry most of America doesn’t know that well: modern manufacturing. As the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is demonstrating through our nationwide State of Manufacturing Tour, this is an industry that is about upscaling, upskilling and future-proofing jobs for all Americans — a dynamic environment that supports not just today’s jobs, but also tomorrow’s.
First, we must recognize that manufacturing has undergone a seismic shift in the way it operates. While traditional assembly line jobs exist, the industry is moving rapidly toward jobs with irreplaceable human skills, such as creativity, ingenuity and critical thinking. Just as we would never create a robot to replace the talent of Tom Brady or LeBron James, the artistry of Lady Gaga or Blake Shelton, or the genius of Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, the manufacturing jobs of today and tomorrow rely on “creative, working-class heroes” with promising long-term career prospects. Many more jobs today that are part of modern manufacturing can be found in product design and innovation, engineering and distribution, technology maintenance and information security, science and even finance. Yes, these are manufacturing jobs, too — and whether they’re filled by people with in-house training at a manufacturing company or through partnerships with community colleges, or by men and women who are ready to apply old skills to a new industry, they are a large part of what makes manufacturing move.
Second, we must embrace technology. Much of the manufacturing industry’s expansion in productivity, which has increased 250% in the past 30 years, has been made possible by automation innovation. And rather than squeezing out jobs, delegating certain tasks to machines and robots actually provides net benefits, not only for the company but for employees as well.
That’s a reality for American businesses like Marlin Steel Wire Products in Baltimore, Maryland. When foreign competition undercut Marlin’s prices with cheap labor, Marlin could have gone under, shutting its doors and leaving its employees out in the cold. Instead, the company invested in automated processes, boosting its productivity, doubling its workforce and increasing wages. Today, Marlin is thriving — and its employees’ jobs are more secure. As other businesses in the United States take advantage of automation, the same holds true: They are better positioned to compete with foreign counterparts, which makes them more profitable, more growth-oriented and better able to hire and retain workers in well-paying jobs — jobs that, on average, pay more than $80,000 a year.
Automation has opened the door to jobs that could not have been imagined even a few decades ago. Thousands of positions have been created to design, engineer, manufacture, market, distribute, install and service automation technologies, and employees who are able to navigate changing systems are in high demand. Future-proof jobs like these that can adapt to changing systems and technology will ensure the manufacturing industry can be a source of employment and economic vitality for decades to come.
And as we look forward to the future, there’s something many discussions also miss: More than 350,000 manufacturing jobs are available right now. According to research by the NAM’s Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, over the next decade, modern manufacturing will have nearly 3.5 million job vacancies. These numbers, of course, do not take into account any actions leaders in Washington may take to make manufacturing in the United States more competitive. The bottom line is that manufacturers will be populating job search engines for years — and now we need the heroes to fill them.
All this means that the pundits and commentators who discount the power of millions of Americans in states with proud manufacturing legacies or who dismiss policymakers’ focus on manufacturing are wrong. America is better positioned than any country in the world to usher in a new era of invention, discovery and production, and manufacturing is ready to lead the charge.