American public manufacturing at top of list of industries

August 3, 2009
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A recent national online survey found that most Americans believe manufacturing is the country’s most important industry, even more vital than technology, energy, health care and financial services.

“I think that finding is important, because the public hasn’t necessarily gotten that impression from the press reports,” said Amy Shaw, director of communications and education for the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

“We’ve heard from a lot of different sources that people believe manufacturing is dead and that we are going to become a service industry. I think when people really start to talk about what that means, they realize that is a horrible mistake,” added Shaw.

The survey, called the Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing, was conducted in May to assess the public’s perception and understanding of a wide range of manufacturing issues. It was commissioned by Deloitte LLP and The Manufacturing Institute, which is affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturing. Some of the survey’s key findings were:

  • 82 percent believed manufacturing was important to the nation’s economic prosperity.

  • 81 percent agreed the manufacturing industry has a significant impact on the nation’s standard of living.

  • 77 percent wanted the country to take a more strategic approach to the development of the manufacturing base.

  • 74 percent said the nation’s base of skilled workers gives the nation an advantage in the global marketplace.

  • 71 percent said developing a strong manufacturing base should be a national priority.

  • 68 percent said manufacturing has a significant impact on national security.

  • 59 percent felt the nation can compete effectively on a global scale.

Despite the good showing manufacturing had with the 1,000 respondents who took the survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, one demographic group didn’t share that perception. Those between the ages of 18 and 24 didn’t feel manufacturing was as important to the economy as the other five age groups. Nor did as many 18- to 24-year-olds think the nation should make sizable investments in manufacturing or that it was as high-tech a field as other groups perceived.

With 18- to 24-year-olds ready to become the nation’s next wave of workers, what do their attitudes toward manufacturing mean for the industry?

“I think it means that we have to roll up our sleeves and do a better job of educating the public, especially in that age group, about what modern manufacturing looks like. They have no idea. These kids have never been to a plant. Their vision of manufacturing is frozen 20 years ago, and things have changed a great deal since then,” said Shaw.

“It’s much more high tech than they realize. It’s certainly much more of a professional and clean environment than most of them realize. And I think that’s the challenge for us as an industry: to do a better job of educating and bringing more students and their parents in and showing them what manufacturing really does look like today,” she added.

A visit might also open the eyes of some of the survey’s older respondents. Only a third felt manufacturing jobs were safe and clean, and only 30 percent said they would encourage their children to pursue a job in the industry.

“These are good, solid jobs despite what’s happened in the current turmoil. These are, again, very different jobs than they used to be. We’re not talking about the same kind of responsibilities for somebody, even on the line, as what these used to be,” said Shaw.

“There is the recognition of the high wages but there’s still a misunderstanding of what they have to do for that. So they’re not sure they want their kids to have that type of life. But they really don’t know what that kind of life looks like. The money sounds good, but what does it really mean?”

In another finding, 61 percent of respondents said their schools don’t encourage students to follow a manufacturing career. The survey also ranked manufacturing fifth in career choices, only ahead of financial services and retail.

Shaw said the industry offers a wide spectrum of jobs today, ranging from engineering and environmental to numerous front-office positions, in addition to assembly. She also said it is the responsibility of manufacturers to tell the public that story.

Those who perceive manufacturing as a dead industry may see it that way because of the bankruptcy filings by General Motors and Chrysler, along with the financial difficulties many of the automotive-parts makers have experienced over the past year.

“I certainly think some of that has focused the attention on what has been reported as the demise of manufacturing, which is not true. It has changed and we have to acknowledge that manufacturing has changed. It has had to change, and the autos were a very visible sign of the process that has been going on for quite some time now,” said Shaw.

“There were changes that had to be made because we had to respond differently, because it’s a global marketplace and we’re just not competing with other states anymore — we’re competing with other countries and we have to figure out how we do that. There have been a lot of changes going on and some of the changes have been very painful, as the news reports have borne out.

“But now I think we’ve done what we’ve needed to do. We’ve put ourselves in a good position, especially if you take a look at the autos. Now it’s about moving forward and trying not to repeat the same mistakes.”

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