Technological Advancement and Manufacturing Jobs

The 2012 presidential elections are quickly approaching, and with the anticipation come a slew of hot topics starting to unravel in the discussions. One such topic that President Obama is making very public is the need for support of current and future manufacturing jobs in his “built-to-last” economic strategy. In the current state of the economy, still struggling to recover the 2008 crash, many have returned to manufacturing jobs or begun to craft DIY and handmade items, ranging from high-tech parts to jarred vegetables and preserves. The Atlantic Cities article features a chart created by Martin Prosperity Institute’s Michelle Hopgood that visualizes production and manufacturing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Manufacturing jobs are the heart of dozens of industries; while the United States’ economic future cannot depend primarily on these jobs, the number of manufacturing jobs is down one-third of the workforce since 1950. The average manufacturing job requires more skill than it did decades ago, but the average pay of a production job is still below the national average. As Atlantic Cities points out:

The 66,530 tool and die makers or the 36,200 aircraft assemblers have great jobs earning $48,710 and $45,230, respectively. But the nearly 150,000 sewing machine operators average just $22,630 a year, or $10.88 per hour.

Implying that as technologies improve so does the efficiency of the product and the tools manufacturers use to create and assemble them. Author Richard Florida compares today’s production workers to the agricultural workforce in the early 1900’s. Back then, agriculture made up for 37% of the workforce. As America continued into the 20th century, the workforce continued to decline until the 1960’s when the agricultural workforce equaled 6%, which is equivalent to today’s manufacturing workforce.

Manufacturing has faced steep decline over the long run, but the Brookings Institution has released a compilation of geographic locations within the US that have seen short term growth in the manufacturing industry. Detroit was ranked second of 100 metropolitan areas with the greatest gains of manufacturing jobs and placed sixth out of 100 metropolitan areas with the largest number of manufacturing jobs in the nation. The 12.1% increase was measured from the first quarter of 2010 to the fourth quarter of 2011. Deadline Detroit quotes the Free Press with reports that one in ten jobs in metro Detroit are manufacturing jobs.

While technology in both manufacturing and agricultural jobs has improved, making both trades more efficient through technology, we may need a new sector to lead the renaissance in employment. The US cannot count on manufacturing alone to continue to improve its employment rate.