WASHINGTON – Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) argued Wednesday that America should push receptive young people toward careers in manufacturing, an industry severely rattled by the Great Recession that represents about 9 percent of the workforce.
“We have to stop telling every young person that they’re going to go to college,” Cicilline said during a discussion at the Brookings Institution that touched on the industry’s decline in jobs and surging production.
President Trump’s appeal to the manufacturing sector during his presidential campaign was a deciding factor in the 2016 election, particularly in the Midwest, where discouraged workers continue to struggle in finding secure employment.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing unemployment was reported at 4.6 percent in January 2007, it climbed to 10.9 percent in January 2009 and hit a 10-year high at 13 percent in January 2010.
Bureau records also show that there were 17.5 million employed in manufacturing in 1987, but today there are only 12.4 million. Prior to the recession, in 2007, the industry counted 14 million workers. Though many experts are skeptical that those millions of jobs are ever coming back, due to automation and globalization, it’s anticipated that over the next decade the U.S. will be in need of 3.5 million manufacturing jobs, partly because of the Baby Boomer generation leaving the workforce. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, about 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled because of a skills gap.
Wednesday’s panel concluded that the public and private sectors need to be prepared to train an evolving manufacturing workforce. Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Metropolitan Policy Program, said that disruption and adjustment brought on by economic uncertainty should not be viewed as a one-time emergency, but rather workers need to be prepared for constant evolution. He called for “universal adjustment” and availability of training.
John Hazen White, Jr., president and CEO of Taco, Inc., a heating and cooling equipment manufacturer, is considered to be somewhat of a rarity in the industry, as his company offers extensive in-house training for its workforce. Taco grew from $30 million in sales in 1992 to $300 million in sales in 2017, while keeping the domestic workforce around 500 people. Instead of “chasing cheap labor” abroad, he said his company’s philosophy is to keep his existing American workforce viable. If employees aren’t up to speed, he said, the company will get them up to speed through training.
“People will never become obsolete,” he said in discussing industry trends toward globalization and automation. He added that the company was nearly broke when it decided to establish the Taco Learning Center.
Cicilline said that because of companies like Taco, American goods are still recognized as high quality around the world, which offers a competitive advantage, but he said the U.S. needs to implement a tax code that rewards manufacturers for keeping operations domestic. The current system does the opposite, he said.
In returning to his original point, Cicilline said that an attractive detail in manufacturing is that the starting pay is better than most industries. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the average American manufacturing worker earned $81,289 annually (including benefits) in 2015.
“Young people, because of the maker movement, are starting to realize this is actually a cool place to have a career, and it’s a career where if you invest in yourself, you invest in your skills, you’re going to see yourself move often and in exciting ways,” he said.
Muro said Trump deserves credit for placing manufacturing at the center of revival for America “winning again,” but he expressed concern about the long-term picture. According to Muro, hiring has been flat for about four years, despite increased demand for high-skilled positions.
Cicilline called for the administration to develop a national manufacturing sector strategy to deal with automation and globalization, describing it as a “critical responsibility.”