Bissell, Part II

Nancy Crawley quotes Upjohn Institute economist George Erickcek in her column on Bissell. George, who is one of the best thinkers I know on economic development policy, says in the column

“I for one am not willing, without a stronger fight, to say production simply can’t be here…. To say simply we give up, we’ll just keep the intellectual capital, will not produce the number of jobs we need.”

The core belief we have at Michigan Future is that what happens to manufacturing employment, except at the margin, is not in our control. Anymore than it was in the government’s control at the turn off the last century what happened to farming. Despite massive government support for farming – which is still going on – only two percent of Americans earn a living on a farm today compared to something like half at the turn of the last century.

To us, the same is now happening in factory work. Globalization and technology have substantially reduced the need for American factory workers. Those forces are stronger than government – particularly state and local government. So no matter what we do the trends of factory work shrinking as a portion of the American and Michigan workforce and that factory work is no high paid will continue.

This is not a value judgment. But reality. If there were a way for the state to recreate a high wage factory based economy we would support it. There isn’t! The state for decades has tried every lever it has to keep factory jobs. Its been economic development priority one for decades. We have been fighting hard. But the levers we have are too weak to overcome the fundamental transformation of our economy.

Will there be factory jobs in Michigan in the future? Of course. But not enough to drive our economy as it did last century. Will they be as high paid as the past? No. Should government continue to fight for those jobs? Sure.

But the new reality is the only way Michigan will regain its status as a high prosperity state is if we make the transition to the growing part of the American economy, which is knowledge-based. Bissell is on that path. Unless more of us get on that path we will be one of the poorest states in the country.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Is there a way for a high wage, high education economy to encourage high wage, high education factory work? What if factory production would become highly automated, requiring fewer workers, but very well educated ones to manage groups of machines. These`factories would produce a lot of products, but the automation would require fewer but well educated workers to oversee the production

    1. Sure. You can see that in industries like information technology, aerospace, pharmaceuticals and chemicals where factories have few workers but those they have are highly skilled, many with college degrees. But few are doing the kind of assembly/production work we think of as factory work. That is by and large done by machines. The work humans are doing is quality control, programming and maintaining the machines.

      The point you make that there will be far fewer jobs in the factories is real important. This kind of work will not be the foundation you can build a broad middle class on. Unlike last century where factory-based economies were the basis of a broad middle class. There just won’t be enough jobs.

  2. I agree that future manufacturing in an automated high wage, high education environment will not be able to hire nearly as many people for the same level of production. However I think it can be one part of the solution. In addition to providing a small portion of the high wage high education jobs Michigan will need in the new economy, such factories are essential if the United States is going to be able to produce many of the goods we need. Again, I am looking at a very automated, computerized manufacturing process where workers of ten need college degrees in engineering or computer science. A given level of production would require much fewer, but highly skilled, workers. Perhaps workers in these factories would do part of a manufacturing process and other parts requiring labor intensive low wage work could be done in low wage states or overseas.

  3. I think manufacturing will still play a major part in our economy in the 21st century. However, it will vastly change. I think the level of production likely will remain as high or higher than in the 20th century. But new factories will be extremely efficient and automated requiring much fewer, mut much better educated workers often with college degrees in operations management, engineering, or computer science. In the 21st century manufacturing will be like agriculture in the 20th century. I am sure American farms produced much more food in the 1900s than was produced in the 1800s. More food was produced by much fewer people

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