The Future of Factory Work

Important article in the New York Times on what is happening to manufacturing employment since the economy started to recover from the Great Recession. It identifies the trends that will likely define factory work going forward.

The new reality: (1) Some job growth, but at a fraction of what was lost this decade (six million) or even the two million lost in the Great Recession. Most of the lost jobs are gone forever. (2) The new factory jobs also don’t pay as well as in the past. The article mentions $10-12 an hour as the going rate for entry-level factory work and $15-20 an hour for more skilled work. This is in line with the $14 an hour that new Detroit Three auto plant workers make. (3) Even in a time of widespread unemployment, manufacturers who are hiring plant floor workers report having a hard time finding workers with the skills they need. Plenty of applicants, but too few qualified applicants. The article cites one Cleveland area drug manufacturer that had 3,600 job applicants, but only 47 who were qualified.

As the article states, During the recession, domestic manufacturers appear to have accelerated the long-term move toward greater automation, laying off more of their lowest-skilled workers and replacing them with cheaper labor abroad. Now they are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker. Makers of innovative products like advanced medical devices and wind turbines are among those growing quickly and looking to hire, and they too need higher skills.

Combine all three trends it adds up to an economy where no more than 10 percent of the jobs will be in factories, those jobs will be moderate, rather than high pay as in the past but most will require more skills than in the past. Big challenge for the country and the sector: transforming a sector from high pay/relatively low skills to moderate pay/mid level skills.

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