US Manufacturing: Is It Sustainable?

September 27, 2011 - 3 Comments

Fall and Rise

In David Lawrence’s and Glenn Anderson’s recent article on ‘The Fall and Rise of the American Manufacturer’, the authors are rather optimistic about the current state of U.S. manufacturing. Citing the Institute of Supply Management indicators of manufacturing activity expansion for 19+ consecutive months and their own observations from surviving their 125-year old employer, Cincinnati Milacron, filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009 and emerging one year later to thriving profitability and bolder investments in innovation, the authors believe manufacturing is now fueling a sustainable economic recovery from the global recession.

Many economists agree, and in the world of public opinion, a recent survey by Delloitte and The Manufacturing Institute showed that 78% of Americans believe that U.S. manufacturing is vitally important to our economic prosperity and 76% believe it is also important to our standard of living. The survey ranked manufacturing ahead of technology, financial services, health care, communications, and retail.  My own optimism is checked by one key consideration required for long term success: Is it SUSTAINABLE?

Creating a new generation of Manufacturers

Only 30% of the U.S. respondents to Deloitte’s poll said they would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career, which is a big obstacle to long-term growth and sustainability. What are the reasons behind these low numbers? If economic data point to manufacturing being not only a prosperous industry but also one necessary to maintain America’s global competitive advantage, why then isn’t there more of a drive from educators or parents to encourage a new generation of manufacurers?

The authors comment:

This presents an urgent need for manufacturers to advocate engineering and technology education and attract future generations of advanced thinkers.

To drive growth, manufacturers must strive to change the public perception of the American manufacturing industry. Gone are the days of dark, dismal factories, but those images still permeate the culture, driving up-and-comers to more ”glamorous,” white-collar professions.

Other obstacles include inertial capital markets that restrict access to funds, continuously curtailed higher education that decreases access to talent, and energy and monetary exchange volatility that spoil the certainty of returns on manufacturing investments.

Banding together

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. remains the world’s largest manufacturing economy, producing 21 percent of global manufactured products, with Japan second at 13% and China third at 12%, so another obstacle is lingering complacency of being on top despite the offshore sourcing and heightened competition.

Milacron’s Lawrence and Anderson conclude in their article that American manufacturers must recognize that while the U.S. still has competitive advantages over many overseas companies, the window is closing quickly, and American manufacturers must band together to advance technologies, strategic partnerships, advocacy, civic support and other key success factors to sustain leadership in the recovering global economy.

While the national dialogue has zoomed and focused on this topic during the last several months, and then de-focused and zoomed elsewhere, I’m not sensing a recognition of the very real and present crisis we face.  How do we sustain a future of differentiated strength through manufacturing?  How do we re-create a modern-day apprenticeship approach that fuels the experts, artisans, and experienced thinking required to maintain that leading edge?  How do we excite the next generation that manufacturing REALLY IS a fun and rewarding career path?

What are your feedback and thoughts?

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  1. I agree with the economists. Manufacturing is vitally important to our economic prosperity and standard of living. Probably not sustainable though.

    Joseph S. Pearl, LL.M. – A Professional Law Corporation
    1400 Chester Ave., Suite C
    Bakersfield, CA 93301

  2. As a young boy growing up Africa, I was thrilled at the art, science and business of “making things”. Back then almost everything we consumed was imported from other parts of the world. However there was a strong emphasis from government and private sector to evolve community based cottage industries towards modern manufacturing of packaged foods, plastics and other locally consumed goods. I pursued a masters in manufacturing engineering with the intentions of contributing to the growing manufacturing sector in the country. It has really served me well throughout my career. As economic opportunities rapidly shift to services oriented professions in the US I wonder if I would encourage others to pursue a manufacturing career in the US today. As you point out, if many US parents are thinking the same, I wonder how this impacts the long term sustainability and growth of the manufacturing industry in the US.

    • Mr. Gandecha, thank you for sharing your story of growth through a manufacturing engineering career path. I believe you’re right that it starts with the influence of parents. U.S. Retro-Boomer generations simply have very limited exposure, examples, or mentors on the rewarding professions of engineering and manufacturing. Boomers parented with the premise that service careers are the path to wealth and enlightenment, and their children saw manufacturing as an outsourced commodity for developing nations to deliver. STEM education was de-emphasized over decades in the U.S., and now we’re resolved to a state of unconscious incompetence. We have limited expertise and very limited interest in manufacturing-oriented careers. I think you’re right: parents of young children should be our targets to educate on the virtues of a sustainable manufacturing economy.