Thankfully, we’re well past the election season of 2012. It seems like one of the biggest buzzwords of the campaign was manufacturing. As in jobs. Look up some different sources online and you can find plenty of disturbing statistics about American manufacturing:
• 6.4 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the past 20 years
• 28% of high-tech manufacturing jobs, or 700,000, have been lost since 2000
• From 2000-2010, 33.1% of manufacturing jobs were lost, vs. 30.9% during the Great Depression
• 2.1 million manufacturing jobs were lost to China between 2001 and 2011
The China issue is certainly one to be worried about. Reshoring manufacturing work back to the U.S. is a bright spot, but the facts are clear that there is a lot of manufacturing, including high-tech work, that has moved to Asia and will likely never come back.
But a part of the equation that I rarely hear discussed is that manufacturing is becoming so efficient, that some of those jobs of yesteryear simply aren’t coming back—not to the U.S. nor Germany nor China. They aren’t needed. Robots are doing the precision work that human hands can’t do, and at incredible speeds.
I was on a plant tour of a Baldor/Dodge facility in Marion, N.C. recently, when I was struck by something. Where was everyone? This plant, which manufactures a variety of bearings, is a very clean, quiet 174,000 sq-ft facility. But about an hour into the tour, the tour guide mentioned that of the 135 or so employees, about 26 or so were working on any given shift on the manufacturing floor. That’s 26 people in a space equivalent to 70 average-sized U.S. homes. Where was everyone, in this plant running at full steam? They weren’t there because they weren’t needed.
This brought to mind a tour I set up for a local group of business magazine editors perhaps fifteen years ago, here in Cleveland. The local newspaper built an enormous production and distribution facility in 1994—a 450,000 sq-ft building that’s quite impressive from the nearby freeway. We wanted to do a tour in conjunction with our quarterly luncheon meeting. I inquired about having the luncheon catered there and was told that there wasn’t anything on site except a vending machine or two. I thought this was extremely odd, given the size of the place.
It wasn’t until the actual day of the tour that I understood what was happening. Except for the rush of trucks that pulled up each morning before sunrise, the plant was pretty much deserted—it took a mere handful of people to run the presses and equipment each day. There were far more robotic pallets carrying huge reams of paper than there were actual workers. It was an eye opening experience as to how efficient we were becoming as a manufacturing society.
I’m not trying to bemoan the efficiencies that we’ve gained in the manufacturing sector, but I wish the national discourse on manufacturing took this reality more into account. Manufacturing isn’t going away, but it continues to change and will continue to change over the next 5, 10, 100 years. We wouldn’t recognize our great-grandkids’ manufacturing plants in 2050, so it seems of minimal use for politicians to compare today’s manufacturing world to 1970.