I recently stumbled across an article from The New Yorker magazine titled “What’s So Great about Manufacturing?” by James Ledbetter. I would encourage you to read this piece if for no other reason than to help you gain an understanding of how misunderstood manufacturing is and why it is so important.
So many of the perceptions that people have of manufacturing and the career opportunities available within the manufacturing sector are based on outdated notions and inaccurate ideas. This article does little to deconstruct those misperceptions. In fact, it promotes a gross misunderstanding of what manufacturing is all about, and it minimizes the good that it does for all of us.
Factory Jobs Are Decidedly Unpleasant — Really?
The author portrays manufacturing jobs as “decidedly unpleasant,” and he cites personal experience as his guide. One conjures up a vision of an Upton Sinclair packing plant, complete with lost hands and fingers floating by in an unending slurry of separated cattle parts and offal. Or, perhaps it’s a hellish scene of molten steel coursing down a channel into a mold as numerous exhausted workers — many sporting horrible burns, lost eyes and other injuries incurred on the job — look on under the watchful eye of a supervisor who dispassionately watches from an air-conditioned glass box suspended above the plant floor.
The Modern Factory
This fellow really needs to visit a modern-day manufacturing facility. He might be shocked to learn that modern plants feature climate control, well-lighted rooms and near “clean room” environments. I recently toured the Toyota Georgetown, Kentucky assembly plant, which knocks out 2,000 automobiles per day. I didn’t see a single worker chained to their workstation. You could converse at a normal volume with the person standing next to you and everywhere you looked, people were working at what I would call a “sedate” pace, not some frenetic “meet the quota at all costs” velocity. No thumbs flying through the air, no blood running across the floor.
This plant featured a credit union, medical facility, several options for dining and other services right onsite. Throughout the shop floor were break areas that featured pool tables and gaming machines; does this sound like hell on earth?
Factory Work Is Dehumanizing — Is It?
The author went on to not only attack manufacturing jobs by the workplace environment, but he also attempts to portray the dehumanizing aspects of factory work. He offers support for his arguments by invoking two champions of the working man: Mr. Karl Marx and Mr. Friedrich Engels. It seems they feel that manufacturing “alienates the worker from his work” and forces the worker to somehow become “an appendage” of the machines they use to complete their tasks.
I grew up in the St Louis, Missouri area. McDonald-Douglas, General Dynamics and others built all kinds of space and aircraft there. Oddly, our poor dehumanized and exploited factory workers did pretty well as I recall. Many had cabins at the Lake of the Ozarks or they had Winnebago campers, bass boats and kids going to Mizzou and other colleges. These guys were justifiably proud of what they did for a living.
Next we are informed that factory workers suffer from all types of illnesses and dependencies due to the horrible conditions they must face. Alcoholism, drugs and depression are the scourge of the factory worker today. Maybe, but these things affect workers in many vocations including teachers, cops, dentists and priests.
Let’s take a look at some numbers.
Manufacturing and Injuries
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks a plethora of data related to workplace safety and occupational hazards. The safety of the modern manufacturing plant actually stacks up very well against other types of employment. The number of manufacturing job-related fatalities steadily declined between 2010 and 2013. A total of 333 fatalities were reported in 2010 versus 312 in 2013.
Comparing the fatality and injury data over other similar occupations clearly shows the manufacturing environment as a safer, less-stressful workplace. The following data is from the BLS 2013 reporting.
The Value of Manufacturing
The real value of manufacturing is in the fact that it is an engine of wealth. Manufacturing creates wealth. If you start with 50 bucks worth of parts and supplies and add 50 bucks worth of labor, you end up with a product that costs $100. You then sell that product for $300. That is how wealth is created. You can’t do that with a hamburger, a shoeshine or by mowing a lawn; you can’t resell a shoeshine or mowed lawn.
When you acquire a manufactured product, you are exchanging value in the form of money for value as a product. That product retains value over the course of time and through multiple ownership cycles. These things do not happen with service transactions.
“It’s All Just Political Rhetoric” — No It’s Not
He then explains how politicians only like factory jobs because they require little training, knowledge or even language skill. These allow the “masses” to be gainfully employed in jobs that no one really wants. Manufacturing job statistics provide fodder for political arguments such as funding education.
Hooey. Manufacturing is very real and very necessary to our way of life. It is the foundation for a strong middle class. Manufacturers are placing plants in other countries because they have technically skilled labor forces — we do not. We don’t train our young in the trades or technical skills because Mom and Dad have some warped notion that a job in a factory is demeaning or beneath them. They think dirty fingernails, Stanley Kowalski and a brutish, physically centered career path and lifestyle devoid of cerebral challenge.
The New Yorker article does little to destroy that illusion.
We Are What We Make
Manufactured products are one of the fingerprints that a culture leaves in history. Services do not leave artifacts, examples of craftsmanship, artistic creations or monuments to their position and place in their own cultural milieu. Manufacturing provides a tangible record of our culture, our times and our priorities.
Our competitors are not troubled by any of this nonsense. There are folks in India and China who are quite happy to hop on a bicycle and ride 40 miles each way every day to one of these dehumanizing, soulless factory jobs we constantly read about. That’s our competition in the world marketplace; that kind of hungry desire and dogged perseverance and most likely, considerable gratitude for the opportunity.
Services are necessary or even critical in some cases, but manufacturing delivers ongoing economic success.
Lou Washington is a manufacturing industry veteran with Cincom Systems.