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A Celebration of American Manufacturing, Part 2

The "whole idea of 'Made in America' is evolving. You’re seeing a lot of foreign auto manufacturers building plants in this country and using American labor."

This is part two of a two-part piece. Part one can be found here.

The next episode of PBS’s series “America Revealed,” scheduled to air May 2 at 10 p.m. EST, unveils surprising facts about the state of manufacturing in the United States. Instead of documenting what most people think is an industry in serious decline, the series producers and host Yul Kwon found reasons to be exhilarated and optimistic. Among the surprising facts is that American workers manufacture more now than at any time in our history; what we make and how we do it is just different.
Manufacturing Business Technology recently spoke with Kwon about his experience documenting the manufacturing industry and what he learned from that experience.

MBT: When you approach a story and try to learn more about a particular topic, I’m sure you have some thoughts on it heading into things. How has your attitude toward American manufacturing changed since you worked on this episode?

Kwon: I kind of was expecting to find sort of a depressing story. I guess I blindly accepted the conventional wisdom that America doesn’t make stuff anymore and that we import everything. But the reality is that I came away with a profound sense of appreciation and respect for just the hard work and the ingenuity of the people and the systems in this country that produce world-class things. There are certainly places where people have been hit hard by the changes that have been going on, but every person that I met still had a fundamental pride in being American. And they had a fundamental belief in the future and promise of this country. For me, that was incredibly affirming.

MBT: Manufacturing is an incredibly competitive industry these days. When you met with people whose livelihood depends on their success in manufacturing for this episode, did you get the sense that they are up for the challenge of doing what is necessary to stay competitive?

Kwon: Absolutely. One thing we noted is that this whole idea of “Made in America” is evolving. In contrast to this notion that America is not a good place to build things, you’re seeing a lot of foreign auto manufacturers building plants in this country, using American-made parts, and using American labor. If you are looking for low-cost labor, you can go to other countries and train people to do the same thing over and over again. But if you are trying to get higher-skilled labor and people that can handle more complex tasks, then (we were told) America is the best place to go. I think America and American labor can be competitive with anyone in the world. The highest value-added jobs are going to stay in this country. The question is: How can we retrain our workers to have the skill sets they need? If you give them the tools and the opportunity, I have no doubt that they will meet and exceed everyone’s expectations.

MBT: What do you want the audience to take away from the episode and the work you put into producing it?

Kwon: The key takeaway is American manufacturing is strong. It’s going to lead us out of this economic slump, and we’re still the best country in the world at making things.

Yul Kwon is host of the PBS miniseries “America Revealed.” He is also the host of the weekly news program “LinkAsia” on LinkTV. In 2006, Yul became the first Asian American to win the CBS reality show “Survivor.” Following “Survivor,” he worked as a special correspondent for CNN, co-hosted a show for Discovery Channel, and became an adjunct instructor for the FBI, where he helped teach a counterintelligence course on social dynamics. More information regarding “America Revealed” can be found here.