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Manufacturing’s second act

Jobs are on the rise in the U.S. thanks to tech

Julia Pollak,

Just three years ago, the Labor Department estimated that manufacturing would lose jobs at a rate of 0.6 percent per year between 2016 and 2026, largely due to automation and trade penetration. But U.S. manufacturing employment defied predictions in 2018, growing by 2.3 percent — faster than average job growth overall of 1.8 percent.

And that growth was unusually broad-based, taking place across many subsectors. The 12-month manufacturing Diffusion Index, a measure of the breadth of job growth, rose from 42.1 percent at the end of 2016 to 80.9 percent at the end of 2018.

Among the many factors driving the expansion are technological advances that are making it cost-effective to manufacture in America again. One is 3-D printing, which is making it possible to design parts that are lighter and more efficient, and to produce them several times more quickly and cheaply than before.

A second technological trend is the increased adoption of robots, sensors and computerized production systems, which increase the need for more highly educated workers with skills in computer programming and data analysis. As a result, the benefits of outsourcing manufacturing work to China and other countries with cheaper labor are declining and the benefits of locating in the United States are rising.

A third technological innovation is the fracking revolution and the increase in domestic production of natural gas and shale oil. Low gas and oil prices reduce U.S. production costs and attract manufacturers. Experts say fracking has helped stimulate the manufacturing renaissance. 

A fourth trend is the rise of manufacturing platforms — a response to the increased demand from consumers for variety and customization. Many manufacturers are finding it easier to be flexible and responsive to customers by using local, small-batch manufacturing techniques and simplified supply chains, rather than mass manufacturing abroad.

Occupational employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics highlight additional trends that have transformed manufacturing over the past two decades. For example, more than 100,000 jobs have emerged for inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers and weighers — largely the result of increasing emphasis on safety and quality.

New engineering and production standards are emerging as a result of negotiated international agreements, U.S. government regulations and even voluntary organizations, such as those committed to producing organic products and eliminating BPA. Median annual earnings of inspectors and testers are $37,340, about the same as the median wage for all occupations. 

ZipRecruiter data on job openings and job searches point to the new and emerging occupations in the field and show that, in many ways, the future of work is already here. There are growing numbers of openings in even the most novel, cutting-edge manufacturing fields. At any one time in 2018, for example, there were about 45,000 job openings for people with computer-assisted design skills, more than 35,000 openings at robotics companies, 25,000 openings at manufacturing platforms and 4,000 openings at 3-D printing companies.

One particularly exciting fact is that even though many of these jobs are quite technical, many do not require advanced education. Typical requirements for manufacturing jobs are on-the-job training or apprenticeships, and in some cases certifications (like for CAD). With manufacturers struggling to fill vacancies, many are making substantial investments in on-the-job training.

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