U.S. manufacturing has an image problem

Robots

A controller for a robot is used during a robot battle at the STEM Tech Olympiad at the eMerge Americas Techweek held in the Miami Beach Convention Center on May 6, 2014 in Miami Beach, Florida. 

American manufacturing has an image problem. Many potential workers don’t want to go near it because they think it’s dirty work. They also worry about job security, remembering outsourcing and plant closures. Now that manufacturing is having something of a comeback in this country, its bad image threatens to block it from getting the talented workers it needs to grow.

Industry efforts to change that image were on display in Hartford recently, where the Mfg4 convention took place. The scene is largely polo and khaki-wearing dudes networking and checking out machines. But those who gazed lower, noticed a sizable contingent of much smaller conference-goers.

Young students were there on a field trip. Among them was sixth grader Isabella Galm. Asked what she thought manufacturing was, she gave an answer that won’t thrill the industry: “Um, boring stuff, like making clothes and stuff,” she ventured.

She’s in a magnet school engineering class, the kind of brain the industry needs. So manufacturers are starting young, hoping tech-savvy students who get an early close-up look might consider it as a career, and take the math and science classes they’ll need to get started in it.

“We encourage manufacturers to open up their doors,” says Debbie Holton, managing director of SME, the manufacturing group that puts on this convention.

The students get access to the whole convention floor and are wowed by the whirring robots, lasers and 3D printers. Their day includes a visit to TRUMPF, an industrial laser plant not far from the convention site. Students get a kick out of the light show as a superfast machine sears a pattern into metal.

The industry says it just needs to get people inside its facilities so it can show them that modern American factories are clean and safe, not the grimy assembly lines of the past.

“A lot of people, it seems to me, still have pictures out of history books in their minds when it comes to manufacturing,” says TRUMPF machine assembly manager Annette Doyle.

The tour seems to be a hit, with students pushing past each other to get a closer look at all the high-tech equipment. They also ask questions, without prodding from their teachers.

Manufacturing also has another image problem. It was among the topics on the table at a recent strategy meeting of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. The group, a collaboration between industry and labor, is headquartered in Washington, where office managers work to ensure furniture is American made. The group’s thinking is that the image of manufacturing as dirty or dangerous isn’t the biggest problem. Its polling shows a more pressing image issue is job insecurity.

“The kids I talk to are not dumb,” says AAM president Scott Paul. “They have seen waves of manufacturing layoffs including, in many circumstances, some of their parents.”

Some 6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs disappeared between 2000 and 2010. Only half a million new ones have come back since. Robot laser show-and-tells won’t work if folks don’t believe those jobs will stay and more are coming.

As for the young student Isabella Galm, a full day of high-tech has clearly changed her view of manufacturing.

“I think it’s basically the future,” Galm says as she prepares to board her school bus.

That’s one young mind changed. But if manufacturers expect to have a future workforce, they’ll need a lot more converts.

Mark Garrison: The Mfg4 convention in Hartford is mostly dudes in polos and khakis, networking, checking out machines.

But gaze lower and you’ll notice smaller conference-goers.

Young students are here on a field trip. Here’s sixth grader Isabella Galm’s (GAHLMS) idea of manufacturing.

Isabella Galm: Um, boring stuff, like making clothes and stuff.

She’s in a magnet school engineering class. Debbie Holton, of the manufacturing group SME, wants tech-savvy young people like her to get a different view.

Holton: We encourage manufacturers to open up their doors.

The students’ day includes a visit to TRUMPF, a nearby industrial laser plant. They get a kick out of the light show as a superfast machine sears a pattern into metal.

TRUMPF manager Annette Doyle says she just needs to get people inside and show them that modern American factories are clean and safe, not the grimy assembly lines of the past.

Annette Doyle: A lot of people, it seems to me, still have pictures out of history books in their minds when it comes to manufacturing.

But manufacturing has another image problem. Alliance for American Manufacturing president Scott Paul believes the more pressing image issue is job insecurity.

Scott Paul: The kids I talk to are not dumb. I mean, they have seen waves of manufacturing layoffs including, in many circumstances, some of their parents.

Some six million U.S. manufacturing jobs disappeared last decade. Only half a million new ones have come back since. Robot laser show-and-tells won’t work if folks don’t believe the comeback is real.

After a full day of high-tech, Isabella Galm boards her school bus with a new view of manufacturing.

Galm: (What do you think it is now?) I think it’s basically the future.

Ok, one down. But manufacturers will need a lot more converts. In Connecticut, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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