Where Are The Manufacturing Jobs?

Manufacturing jobs are a hot topic. The concern was prominent in the presidential election. Journalists who know nothing about manufacturing or automation are pontificating. Everyone has ideas.

Seth Godin has written a perceptive article on jobs—where they were and where they are going. He is known as a marketing guru, but he is a keen observer of business.

In this post, he wrote about jobs going away. “The good jobs I’m talking about are the ones that our parents were used to. Steady, consistent factory work. The sort of middle class job you could build a life around. Jobs where you do what you’re told, an honest day’s work, and get rewarded for it. Those jobs. Where did they go? The computer ate them.”

Now, I argue that that is not all bad. Many of the jobs were mindlessly repetitive. Many were also physically debilitating or downright dangerous. But there is no denying that the economics of the 1950s and 1960s allowed companies to buy labor peace with high wages.

But things have changed.

“For a hundred years, industrialists have had a clearly stated goal: standardized workers building standardized parts. The assembly line was king, and the cruel logic of commodity economics pushed industrialists to improve productivity. They did this by improving the assembly line and, when they could, by paying workers less.”

Godin opines that today, workers serve the computer. From machine operators to office workers. “Sure, there are still pockets of work that are essentially unmeasured or unique enough that they’re difficult to replace. This is where the remaining ‘good jobs’ exist. For the rest, though, the first brick in the wall is clear: Either you serve the computer or it serves you. Either you are working on spec to create a commodity, or you are using new tools to create disruptions and to establish yourself as the linchpin, the one we can’t easily live without.”

Then Godin strikes at the schools. A topic that I’ve devoted time in thinking and acting on. “During the last forty years, as the computer and the network destroyed the system that our schools were built for, we (from the top down, and also, most definitely, from the bottom up) did almost nothing to change the schools we built.”

Whose fault is this? Well, that can be spread around. “Parents and the institutions they fund closed their eyes and only paid attention to SAT scores and famous colleges.”

Schools were developed to serve the new manufacturing economy. Emphasis on basic skills, sitting in rows, and following instructions replaced education. Godin—“When a pre-employed person says, ‘I don’t know how to code and I’m not interested in selling,’ we need to pause for a moment and think about what we built school for. When he continues, ‘I don’t really have anything interesting to say, and I’m not committed to making a particular change in the world, but I’m pretty good at following instructions,’ we’re on the edge of a seismic shift in our culture. And not a positive one.”

Reminds me of when my dad told me when I was around 14, “Study, go to college, learn to be an engineer. Don’t settle for a job on the assembly line where you sit there all day putting a bolt in a hole.”

Funny thing, though, that many of the guys I’ve known over the years who had rote jobs like that were quite creative outside the factory. If only we could have tapped and encouraged that creativity.

Godin concludes, “No, the good jobs aren’t coming back. But yes, there’s a whole host of a new kind of good job, one that feels fundamentally different from the old days. It doesn’t look like a job used to look, but it’s the chance of lifetime if we can shift gears fast enough.”

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