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Higher Skills Required for Manufacturing Jobs

Manufacturing is sometimes described as "turning thoughts into things." It's a creative process that is becoming more and more high-tech and complex.

In recent years, the manufacturing industry has seen many job losses. And the number of people employed in the industry is expected to continue to shrink.

However, young skilled workers are still needed to keep this major sector of the economy humming along. Many manufacturing jobs are challenging, interesting and well paying.

Manufacturing, of course, is the making of stuff. A manufacturer uses a plant, factory or mill to turn a pile of metal into a car, a piece of plastic into a coat hanger, or a tree into a desk.

Many people view manufacturing jobs as dirty and unsafe. But manufacturing today is typically safe, clean and high tech, says Jennifer McNelly. She's a senior vice president with the Manufacturing Institute.

"There is a public perception that old manufacturing... was a dark, dirty, dangerous environment, when, in fact [today], manufacturing is very clean and advanced," she says. "You go into manufacturing facilities today and [there are] these integrated systems that are complex, where you can be at a computer monitor one minute... and at a machine the next minute making what you just designed. So, it's a very different operating environment."

McNelly believes that young people today want to solve big challenges and help the world, and that's what a career in manufacturing can provide.

"[Young people are] very driven by action and doing and making a difference," she says. "They're also a very connected global community, and in the end, manufacturing is what makes our nation safe, healthy and strong. [For example], manufacturing is what makes the medicines that cure diseases, and the rockets that take us to space.

"It is a great opportunity... to take what is your passion and what you care about, and actually channel it into the concrete and the real," she adds.

Trends in the Industry

"On a broad level, manufacturing... has been declining overall pretty much for the last decade and a half, and this is not a surprise," says Henry Kasper. He's an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "We see this in news headlines and we know about this.

"The long-term trend is definitely down, overall," he adds. "Some of the factors contributing to this decline are the usual suspects -- consolidation, improvements in productivity including automation, computerization, strong foreign competition...."

Kasper says another factor is companies moving production facilities to countries outside North America. "It's just so much cheaper to produce things in places like India and China," says Kasper. "That's playing a huge role."

Producing items overseas can also be appealing to some companies because environmental and safety regulations are often less strict in other countries.

Because of automation (replacing people with machines), the number of low-skill jobs will continue to decrease. Exceptions are those jobs that are difficult to automate altogether, such as animal slaughtering.

"Some of the low-skill jobs will continue to be automated going forward," says Kasper, "and the jobs that will remain will probably require more education and training.

"I think there are declines across the board for all skill levels. It's just that there are slightly better opportunities... for those with higher skills, with greater training and education," he adds. "They will probably also continue to experience declines, but not quite at the rapid rate as those... occupations that require low skills and training and education."

Even though the number of low-skill jobs is decreasing, there will still be plenty of job openings. How is this possible? The answer is turnover. People tend to quickly leave certain types of jobs (especially unpleasant ones like animal slaughtering). This creates new openings.

Education, Training and Skills Required

Manufacturing today is more sophisticated than ever. You're likely to need some post-secondary education to get a job.

"Jobs have changed," says McNelly. "Requirements have changed. You need to have higher skills. You need to have some form of post-secondary education. In most cases, you can't get there with just a high school diploma, but will need an industry-recognized certification to validate your skills to employers.

"That post-secondary education can be in a community college environment, or it can be in an apprenticeship environment," she adds.

Ian Howcroft works for an association for manufacturers and exporters. He agrees with McNelly and Kasper that a lot of the new jobs in manufacturing will require more education and training than in the past.

"I think we can never compete on low-economy jobs, and haven't been able to do that for decades, so [the best opportunities are with] jobs that are involving more education, more technology, more innovation, [and] a lot on the energy side," he says. "We're seeing a lot of interest in new types of energy, green energy. So, jobs are involving more sophistication and more education, and are more technology based."

Howcroft says today's manufacturing worker is always learning. They might start out with an apprenticeship or a college diploma. But after that, they'll take additional courses to stay on top of the latest technology.

"A good, solid, basic education is still very important," says Howcroft. "To have a grounding in the foundation skills -- math, the sciences and technology.

"We also hear about the softer skills," Howcroft says. "People need to know how to communicate, how to understand the world of work.

"Companies are looking for people that are well rounded, and can grow and understand and continue to train, because what you need to know now may not be what you need in five years. They want people that have an ability to learn and an ability to continue to upgrade their skill set and upgrade the education they have, to adapt to the new technologies and new innovative techniques and processes."

It's a time of uncertainty in the manufacturing sector. But uncertainty can also bring opportunities!


National Association of Manufacturers
America's largest manufacturing industry organization

Manufacturing is Cool
A website geared to young people with info on careers and summer programs

Association for Manufacturing Technology
Information about the technology used to manufacture products

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