The Death and Rebirth of Industry and Manufacturing

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back

Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown

Industrial jobs are not dead. Certainly, many have been lost – shipped overseas, lost to the great recession, or eliminated due to automation or increased efficiency. To follow the dominant public narrative, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking industrial jobs in North America are a relic of the 20th century. Whether it’s the conversion of former ports and industrial lands to residential/commercial space and amenities, the hollowing out of former industrial centers in the Midwest, or pop culture narratives from artists like Bruce Springsteen, the focus has been on what’s been lost, not what’s been preserved, enhanced, and created.

“We have a PR problem”

One of the panelists in the Industrial 2.0 session noted this, that people don’t realize industry still offers well-paying jobs in growth sectors. Keynote speaker Roland Martin, of Fortune 200 Company Illinois Tool Works, echoed this. Dan Swinney of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council noted that not one career counselor he spoke to would refer a kid to a manufacturing job. As I tweeted yesterday, I was surprised to find out that manufacturing is one of the 5 fastest growing industries in Chicago. The other 4 – health, education, hospitality, and culinary – feel rather intuitive, but manufacturing came as a surprise.

Industry and manufacturing is changing, not disappearing entirely. My belief is that the misconception also comes in part from the fact that many of the most recognizable household items – things and brand names we come across regularly – are manufactured (entirely or in part) overseas. We’re much more aware of kitchen items that say ‘Made in China’ than we are about automotive or electronic parts whose origin we’ll never seen branded. For example, Roland Martin spoke about how and where in the United States his company manufactures parts for the iPhone and electronic devices. My home region of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has an economy driven in large part by the production of oil field parts and supplies. Most consumers will never encounter these in their everyday life.

My inference from listening to the panelists and keynote speakers is that manufacturing and industrial jobs will continue to exist, but they’re going to continue to evolve and change. You can still have a successful, productive career in this sector, but what’s required to do so is different than 50 years ago. Instead of learning the trade of one factory, or aspect of an industry, core competencies and skills that can serve one well in different types of manufacturing will be key. It’s going to be less about learning a specific, rote task, and more about having skills that allow one to adapt and evolve, just as industry and manufacturing do.

Government and education policies need to align with, and encourage this. Panelists talked about land banking, repurposing of old industrial lands, and other strategies governments are pursuing successfully at the macro level for a region. It’s now time to apply those same principles to the current and future industrial/manufacturing work force, ensuring they thrive alongside the industry.

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