Manufacturing in America: It is poised for a comeback?

American Made Movie (Documentary)On Labor Day weekend, the documentary film American Made Movie opened in theatres in key cities across the country.  And for a change, this film doesn’t chronicle the decline of American manufacturing, but instead its potential for rebirth.

Directors Vincent Vittorio and Nathan McGill have produced a film that’s both realistic and optimistic – two words that aren’t often used in conjunction with one another when the topic is manufacturing.

The directors don’t shy away from the facts:  U.S. manufacturing jobs shrinking from ~$17 million to just ~$12 million in the past 20 years due to technology, global competitiveness and outsourcing.

But there are signs of recovery.  At least the anectodal evidence for it is strong.

In August, Wal-Mart organized a manufacturers’ summit which was attended by ~1,500 people including U.S. and foreign-based companies, Department of Commerce and Federal Reserve officials, and eight state governors.

At this meeting, Wal-Mart affirmed its commitment to buy $50 billion in additional American-made products over the next 10 years.  GE, Element and other companies also announced plans to boost domestic manufacturing activities.

These developments aren’t merely patriotic or altruistic — although there may be some of that factoring into the decision.

In fact, with Chinese labor costs rising 15% to 20% each year, that country’s labor cost advantage is narrowing compared to the United Sates.

Harold Sirkin of Boston Consulting Group points out that factoring in raw materials and other costs, China maintains only a ~3% lead on product costs.  Add in transportation costs from Asia, and the “Made in America” alternative takes on new validity.

“We are at an inflection point,” Sirkin has stated, noting that the United States is now competitive with China.

GE’s chief executive officer Jeff Immelt echoes these sentiments, contending that on a relative basis, America has never been more competitive thanks to technology and improved productivity.

“High transportation costs mean you want to be closer.  It’s not just pure labor arbitrage,” Immelt notes.

As for productivity, the mere three hours it takes to assemble a GE refrigerator in America makes its total cost lower than a similar Chinese or Mexican-made models destined for the American market, according to Immelt.

I like what I’m hearing about the coming resurgence in American manufacturing … but I think we’ve heard this prediction before. 

The film directors discovered this inconvenient issue when traveling the United States and visiting manufacturing plants from large cities to small towns:  There’s a sizable gap between what manufacturers need in human capital, and the ability of the labor force to meet those requirements – whether it be older workers, or young workers right out of school.

Vincent Vittorio and Nathaniel McGill, movie directors
“American Made Movie” documentary film directors Vittorio and McGill.

“We need to provide the apprenticeship training necessary for a new generation of American workers to grow as fast as our technology is changing,” the documentary movie directors contend.

That may be happening at some technical colleges and a few community colleges across America.  But it’s not happening nearly enough if, like me, you hear constant complaints from manufacturing execs about the disconnect between the lack of (even basic) job skills and (increasingly sophisticated) job requirements on the manufacturing line.

Maybe it’s time to look harder at appropriating pieces of the German/Austrian apprenticeship model, wherein talented students are plucked from high school and placed with manufacturing firms for on-the-job training in lieu of college.

In such environments, a structured program of learning and training provides the roadmap for successful transition and integration into the job force.

An apprenticeship may not seem as “classy” an accomplishment as a college diploma.  But a college diploma doesn’t mean nearly as much these days.

What once was a sure-fire ticket to a career has given way to an environment in which half of all new college graduates are unemployed, underemployed, or working jobs for which their degree is irrelevant or unnecessary.

To that half of the young labor force, the near-100% placement/success rate for apprenticeships must seem awfully attractive now.

What are your thoughts about a coming manufacturing renaissance in America?  Please share your comments here.

One thought on “Manufacturing in America: It is poised for a comeback?

  1. The German system certainly has worked well for the country’s economy, particularly its manufacturing sector.

    But kids are not “plucked from high school” after graduation and then sent to vocational programs; generally, they are plucked from elementary schools and shunted to vocationally oriented secondary schools (Hauptschule) at a very young age. Once that happens, it’s hard to change course and work towards university admission.

    That “inflexibility” notwithstanding, the dual-track German system certainly cranks out expert machinists and other highly skilled craftsmen as well as scholars.

    What we have in the U.S. are trade schools masquerading as universities. And outrageously expensive universities at that. But alas, most don’t offer the rigorous apprenticeship programs the Germans are famous for.

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