The new inaudible sound of U.S. manufacturing

Unemployment and productivity both soar in the American manufacturing industry. What is going on?

The BBC's Jonny Dymond describes the future of manufacturing in the United States as "quiet".

Not because demand is down. Not because of labor strikes. But because of educational requirements and robots.

"As employment has plummeted, productivity has soared," Dymond writes.

Akin to the shift in labor brought on by the industrial revolution, today's technological revolution has pulled the percentage of factory work in the United States down from a third in the 1950s to below 10%.

The pay is still great - $77,186 with benefits for a standard manufacturing job in 2010. The question is, what does standard now mean?

"That path to mass middle-class work is gone," says Lou Glazer of the consulting group Michigan Future Inc.

"The only high-paid factory work left is going [to] people who both program and maintain machines. That work is going to be high-paid but it requires much higher skills."

There will also be fewer and fewer of these jobs available.

The clanking of hand-operated machinery has been replaced with the light whir of hydraulic lifts.

"We don't forge things anymore," says Aaron Crum, the president of AMI, a Michigan-based maker of fuel cells. "We use lasers to cut metal, we extrude ceramics, we do things that are different. And so because of it, we need a different labor force to make it happen."

American identity has relied heavily on the idea that hard work pays off - hard work no matter the kind. Looking today at the rapidly shifting labor landscape, this idea appears more like a mirage.

"You just needed to be a hard worker," Gerry Gardner, a former GM factory worker told Dymond. "And you needed to show up every day, because it wasn't easy work. You could put the kids through college, we had a couple of weeks vacation."

If sparks are flying in factories like AMI (and the numbers show that they are), few people are around to see them.

[via: Jonny Dymond at the BBC]

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