31 minute read

Looking Into Manufacturing


As we begin the twenty-first century, the manufacturing industry in the United States is in transition. Some would even say that a crisis is at hand by pointing to the loss of 2.8 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2003, and the mass layoffs that occurred in 2005. More than 14.5 million people still worked in manufacturing at the end of 2005, accounting for about 14 percent of the country's total output of goods and services. However, while the overall unemployment rate slowly declined between 2003 and 2005, from 6.0 to 5.1 percent, manufacturing's recovery from the 2000 recession continues to be the slowest on record. It remains to be seen how soon the manufacturing industry can regain its former strength.

Many reasons are given for the current decline of the U.S. manufacturing industry. Increased global competition, rising energy costs, overregulation, high taxes, and cuts in government funding of manufacturing research are cited. Another factor is burdensome health care costs and pension obligations—General Motors (GM) predicted its health care costs would rise from $5.2 billion in 2004 to $5.6 billion in 2005. The "crushing burden" of health care costs threatens the overall well-being even of industry "giants" such as GM.

The auto industry will have to adapt to the new global economy. Rebates, foreign competition, and skyrocketing gas prices jarred the industry in the early years of the new century. In April 2005 GM announced it lost $1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2005, its worst quarterly loss since 1992. Losses such as these often result in more cuts in jobs and health care benefits. Furthermore, domestic auto makers will face even more challenges in the coming years, including currency exchange rates, government regulations, competition from China and India, and product development costs.

The biggest challenge to U.S. manufacturing may be the country's transition from an industrial economy to an information economy. As more factory jobs are sent overseas, more service-sector jobs replace them at home. To be sure, there are bright spots. During the 1990s the production output for all of manufacturing increased by more than one-third, even as the number of workers employed decreased. New technologies and management theories may once again infuse new life into U.S. manufacturing. The manufacture of electronic equipment and medical instruments and supplies is thriving.

Some experts expect a full recovery for the manufacturing industry and suggest that it will accompany an improvement in the U.S. economy. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 5 percent decline in manufacturing employment for the decade 2004–2014. While this is less than the 16 percent decline of the previous decade, some experts caution that nevertheless the supremacy of U.S. manufacturing may be a thing of the past, lost in the transition to a service-based economy. In any case, manufacturing will need to retool for a new world. These are exciting and uncertain times for the manufacturing industry.


Modern manufacturing began with the Industrial Revolution, a series of economic and scientific

The goal of mass production is to increase efficiency in the manufacturing process by increasing the number of identical items produced in a specific time period. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

changes that began in eighteenth-century Great Britain and brought about the replacement of manual labor by machines. In the late 1700s British inventors developed several machines—the flying shuttle, spinning jenny, water frame, and machine loom, among others—that improved and facilitated the production of cotton textiles. Driven by steam power, the new machines enabled one person to accomplish tasks that had previously required many workers. These developments ushered in the modern factory system, a system that brought with it profound economic and social change. Manufacturing replaced agriculture as the economic core of Britain and many other nations. This in turn contributed to the growth of cities, as more people left the farm for the factory.

The factory system is made possible by four key components: labor, to staff the factories; capital, to invest in the machinery and raw materials needed to establish the factory; raw materials, to provide the substances to be turned into finished products; and demand for the products produced in factories.

Industry Snapshots


Between 2004 and 2014 the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14 percent growth rate for all industries combined. Wage and salary employment in the aerospace product and parts manufacturing industry is expected to rise by a comparatively modest 8 percent. The decline in orders in commercial transport aircraft since 2001 is attributed to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. However, air traffic is slowly beginning to increase. Moreover, U.S. airlines will need to replace a great deal of their aging fleet in the upcoming years. Demand for airplanes from Asian and Pacific Rim countries is also expected to boost commercial aerospace manufacturing. Engineering jobs could become more plentiful as current engineers approach retirement age. In addition, employment in the defense-related sector of the aerospace industry will continue to increase.


Consumers are once again favoring U.S.-made cars, minivans, pickups, and sport-utility vehicles. As a result, the U.S. automotive industry began a strong comeback in 1993, which continued through the 1990s. In the decade from 2004 to 2014, overall wage and salary employment in auto manufacturing is expected to increase by 6 percent; however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects only a 2 percent increase in parts manufacturing jobs and an 8 percent rise in motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing employment over the same period. Automakers will push for more sales overseas, especially in Europe. Research and development will be another major area of activity, as manufacturers seek new technology to meet higher environmental standards.


Technology has rejuvenated the U.S. steel industry. Instead of huge steel mills forging iron into standardsize sheets and rods, new "minimills" use computeraided design and manufacturing to turn scrap steel into specialized products for customers. These computer-based mills are able to compete successfully against cheaper foreign labor. And yet, because of expected mergers and acquisitions in the steel industry, employment is projected to fall 13 percent between 2004 to 2014.


The pharmaceutical industry will continue to spend a high proportion of its funds for research. Biotechnology companies promise many more new drugs based on replicating human molecules rather than on synthesizing chemicals. Demand for products will remain strong, amid growing criticism over the rising cost of medicines. Manufacturers will continue to face increased competition in worldwide markets. Generic drug producers will continue to pose new challenges for traditional pharmaceutical companies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of wage and salary jobs in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing to increase by a dramatic 26 percent over the period 2004 to 2014. This compares favorably with the 14 percent for all industries combined. Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing ranks among the fastest growing manufacturing industries.


Imports, new automation, retail cost cutting, use of off-shore assembly, and mergers are all expected to cause a significant decline in the employment of textile, apparel, and furnishings workers through 2014. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, changing trade regulations, more than anything else, will affect future employment patterns. Industry leaders are seeking to apply agile manufacturing concepts in an attempt to prevent further erosion of the industry. Their ultimate goal is to use information technology to produce custom-made clothing at off-the-rack prices.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that wage and salary employment in the machinery manufacturing industry will see a 13 percent decrease over the period 2004 to 2014. While there will be a need to replace retiring workers, all segments of the industry will experience this decrease in some way. Similarly, employment in computer and electronic product manufacturing is projected to decline by 7 percent between 2004 and 2014. Although the industry itself is certain to grow, employment will likely shrink as a result of technology's ability to produce better products with fewer employees.


Although demand for petroleum products will continue to increase through 2014, overall employment in the oil and gas extraction industry is expected to decline by 6 percent during this period. Environmental concerns will continue to have a major impact on the industry, as will strict regulation and limited access to protected federal lands. In compliance with government regulations, oil refiners are revamping their refineries to produce new, cleaner types of gasoline. New oil deposits being found in the United States, mostly off coastal shores, will be developed.


The chemical industry is one of the United States' largest industries, but employment is expected to decline by 14 percent from 2004 to 2014. It employed nearly 725,000 people in 2000—about 4 percent of all U.S. manufacturing workers—but is projected to employ less than 700,000 by 2010. Improvements in production technology have reduced the need for workers in production. Companies that can develop environment-friendly chemicals will prosper. The U.S. chemical industry is the largest in the world, but foreign competition is expected to make inroads into the U.S. global market share.

The Advent of Factories

The factory system spread from England to other countries. At first, settlers in the American colonies were slow to embrace this European innovation. Land in the colonies was cheap, and pioneers were not inclined to work long hours in a factory when they could till their own land. As a result, labor—one of the four key components of the factory system— was scarce, and early factory owners had a hard time finding enough people to operate their machines. Money for capital investment in expensive machines and large factory buildings was also hard to find. Furthermore, although raw materials were abundant in North America, most were undiscovered or undeveloped. In addition, because the American colonies were not so heavily populated and because the infrastructure was still developing, the colonies lacked a market sizable and accessible enough to make large-scale factory manufacturing profitable.

Despite these obstacles, a surprising amount of small-scale manufacturing existed when the American colonies became a nation. As early as 1791, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton reported on many different kinds of enterprises and urged Congress to plan for expansion of manufacturing in the new republic. It would be three-quarters of a century, however, before the value of the United States' factory output exceeded that of its farms.

An Industrial Explosion

In the 150 years between Hamilton's report and World War II, the United States changed from an agrarian society to an urban industrial nation. By the middle of the twentieth century, one in three U.S. workers was employed in manufacturing. During the same period, advances in farm technology enabled fewer farmers to produce more food. By 1950 only 12 percent of U.S. workers were engaged in agriculture.

Several key developments facilitated the United States' transformation from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy. The nation's population grew from fewer than 4 million in 1790 to more than 130 million in 1940, providing an abundant supply of workers to run the nation's factories and consumers eager to buy the products. Railroads and highways built across the nation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave factory owners easy access to fuels to power their factories, raw materials to make their products, and markets to sell their goods.

The most important changes, however, occurred in the factories themselves. In 1793 Samuel Slater, a former British textile worker who historians consider the founder of the cotton textile industry, built the first successful textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin two years later made textile factories—where fiber was spun and woven into cloth—highly profitable. By 1860 more than 400 million pounds of cotton, grown in the South, were spun into fiber in more than 1,000 cotton mills. Most of the mills were in New England, where the relatively dense population provided labor, where seaports made it easy to import raw materials and export finished goods, and where rapid rivers provided abundant water power.

As the factory system flourished, it expanded to include many other industries besides textiles. Whitney turned his attention to the manufacture of firearms for the U.S. Army, which up to that point had used firearms assembled from hand-tooled parts. Whitney's idea was to use interchangeable parts in the production of firearms. The parts would be machine made to standard specifications, enabling the user to replace broken parts easily.

Although the army was skeptical of this new technology, Whitney took ten of his muskets to Washington, D.C., dismantled them in front of army officials, scrambled the parts, then quickly reassembled ten different and fully operational firearms. Other manufacturers were eager to adopt Whitney's principle of interchangeable parts, and by the middle of the nineteenth century use of his principle was widespread. By 1860 there were 140,000 manufacturing plants in the United States, and these plants employed 1.3 million workers—20 percent of the workforce—and already accounted for 20 percent of the nation's gross national product.

Whitney's idea eventually made possible another major manufacturing innovation: the large-scale mass production technology pioneered by Henry Ford. Ford employed a system called "continuous-flow manufacture," in which production is arranged so materials move smoothly through successive processing stages. Making use of interchangeable parts, this system established what came to be called an "assembly line." Spurred on by the industrial challenges of two world wars, U.S. factories mastered the art of mass production, and the nation's manufacturing system became the world standard.

Global View: Manufacturing

Like other sectors of the U.S. economy, manufacturing is seeing an increase in global competition that is resulting in significant changes in the way manufacturers do business. These include new ways of dealing with customers, suppliers, and competitors, as well as modifications in the internal structure and corporate culture of the companies themselves.

The emergence of rapid worldwide communications networks is helping to open up markets to global competition. Some companies are finding that small specialized markets they once dominated are now being discovered by international competitors. Of course, this works both ways. While foreign firms are finding more opportunities to sell manufactured goods in the United States, U.S. companies are exploring new markets overseas. For example, one New York company runs a videoconferencing program that allows small U.S. manufacturers to hold face-to-face conferences with potential foreign customers. Other small manufacturers are finding sites on the Internet to be an inexpensive and efficient way to make contact with new international clients.

For many manufacturers, going global once simply meant exporting their products to foreign countries. As global competition increases, many are now turning to new ways to break into overseas markets. Some are establishing joint ventures and alliances in which they form a partnership with an overseas firm that already has manufacturing and distribution facilities in place. By eliminating the need to build new plants and set up distribution networks in an unfamiliar environment, this arrangement dramatically lowers the cost of entering foreign markets. In addition, an overseas firm's familiarity with local tastes and customs gives its U.S. partner an advantage in marketing its products.

Global competition is also leading many manufacturers to streamline their corporate structures and change the way decisions are made. Because customers from different cultures have different needs and expectations, decision making must be more flexible. Upper management has to be more willing to listen to what sellers and distributors are telling them about the needs of different markets.

The long-term shift from farms to factories caused a profound change in the character of life in the United States. More and more people moved to the nation's cities, where most of the factories were located. They earned more money than ever before, and they bought a wide range of low-cost, mass-produced consumer goods that once only the wealthy could afford.

Emergence of a Global Marketplace

The end of World War II marked the emergence of the United States as an industrial superpower. Many manufacturers earned record profits, and the high unemployment rates that had defined the Great Depression subsided. The prosperity continued for most of the next two decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, a changing economic picture forced U.S. manufacturers to alter the way they had been doing business.

With the emergence of a global economy, U.S. firms were faced with foreign competitors who could manufacture goods at a much lower cost. In response, some U.S. manufacturers decided not to invest capital in building or improving factories in the United States but instead to build overseas manufacturing plants. They did this for two reasons. First and foremost, in most foreign countries employees are paid far less than U.S. factory workers, many of whom belong to powerful labor unions. Second, foreign nations usually have fewer regulations concerning worker and environmental safety. U.S. manufacturers sought to escape the cost of complying with rules set down by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Over time, the developing global economy had a devastating impact on U.S. workers and businesses. Factories in the United States became outdated and unable to compete with foreign plants, which often were newer operations using advanced technology and automation. As prices for U.S.-made products increased, demand for these goods declined sharply, both here and abroad. The steel and auto industries were especially hard hit. In the 1950s the United States had provided more than 50 percent of the world's steel; by 1989 that figure had fallen to about 11 percent. During the 1970s foreign automakers' share of the U.S. auto market skyrocketed from 17 to 37 percent, and in 2003 Toyota eclipsed Ford as the world's number-two automaker in global annual sales. In 2004, for the first time in its forty-seven-year history, Toyota sold over 2 million vehicles. Some industry experts predict that it is even possible for Toyota to overtake GM by 2010. Moreover, Chinese manufacturers could take their first significant bite out of the U.S. market by 2010. In this economic climate, many U.S. businesses—especially those making cars, steel, textiles, and shoes—could be forced to lay off even more workers and shut down factories, or go out of business altogether.


While many U.S. manufacturers moved their operations overseas, other manufacturers attempted to remain competitive by updating their factories in the United States. Influenced by Japanese industrial success, manufacturers in the United States installed more automated and computer-controlled equipment to reach ever-higher levels of efficiency. They discovered that industrial robots—dubbed "steel-collar" workers—could save the cost of human labor. Driven by a vision of "lights-out manufacturing," in which automatons hum day and night, U.S. manufacturers went on a multibillion-dollar robot-buying spree.

Top-Dollar Jobs in Manufacturing
The jobs described in this volume are high paying. The figures represent typical salaries or earnings for experienced workers.

  • Industrial Designer
  • Industrial Engineer
  • Manufacturing Engineer
  • Production Manager
  • Quality Control Inspector

However, despite spending $1 trillion on computer technology during the 1980s, U.S. factories barely increased their productivity. Whereas automation increased output, it failed to reduce production costs. At the same time, mass-produced goods glutted the global marketplace, and U.S. products still could not compete with lower-priced and, in some cases, better-made foreign products. In addition, too much automation actually seemed to slow manufacturers down. Automated plants meant that manufacturers could not switch their production lines fast enough to meet the demands of a market that valued greater product variety and allowed a shorter product life cycle. Clearly, automation alone was not the answer to the United States' manufacturing woes.


U.S. manufacturers eventually came to realize that it would take more than sophisticated equipment to restore the United States' preeminence in industry. A transformation of the manufacturing process was needed, one that would allow production methods to be more responsive to consumer demand. In short, a transformation from mass production to flexible production was called for.

Mass Production

Ever since the first Model T rolled off Ford's assembly line, the goal of mass production has been to increase efficiency. The principle of mass production is simple: to increase the number of identical items that can be produced per unit of time using the same equipment. In other words, more is cheaper— volume makes a difference. As Ford himself put it, a customer can buy any color Model T, so long as it is black.

Flexible Production

In the aftermath of unsuccessful attempts to keep up with increasing costs and foreign competition, U.S. manufacturers decided to try a new and different approach. Besides efficiency, many manufacturers set their sights on another goal: flexibility. The goal of flexible-production manufacturing is to develop, manufacture, and distribute quality products in the shortest time possible at a minimum cost. Rather than long runs of the same product, flexible manufacturing produces a variety of products in small batches. To meet their goals, flexible manufacturers use techniques such as flexible automation, integration, rapid design and prototyping, point-of-sale data, strong supplier relationships, and a versatile, streamlined workforce.

Flexible Automation

Mass production depends on fixed-automation, single-purpose machine tools set in line to make a specific part or product. By contrast, flexible production incorporates flexible-automation, multipurpose machine tools designed to produce a variety of parts or products. For example, on a mass production assembly line a lathe cuts the same part over and over, whereas on a flexible-production assembly line a computer-programmed lathe might be capable of cutting as many as forty-five

Manufacturing Industry, Employment Growth Projections, 2004–2014*
SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Monthly Labor Review, November 2005.

different parts. Besides computer-controlled machines, flexible automation uses robots to carry out many handling tasks and carts guided by remote control to deliver materials to the production line.


Flexible manufacturing saves time by integrating the workforce. Rather than passing completed work "over the wall" to the next group, designers, machine toolmakers, production workers, and marketing personnel collaborate on a new product from the outset. Integration, which is also called "concurrent development" or "cross-functional teams," sometimes pulls together personnel from different companies to work on complex projects.

Besides integrating the workforce, flexible production incorporates technology that enables machines to communicate with each other and ensure the smooth flow of products from station to station. This aspect of integration is sometimes referred to as "computer-integrated manufacturing."

Rapid Design and Prototyping

Another way flexible production gets new products to market quickly is by speeding up product design and testing. Instead of laboring for days or months with manual calculations, product engineers use computer-aided design (CAD) systems to develop new products. CAD software creates parts in seconds on a computer screen and even offers the viewer a three-dimensional appearance. The system calculates proportions, volume, center of gravity, and other features.

Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems translate engineers' three-dimensional drawings into prototypes. Pushing a button on a prototyping machine produces a test model in minutes, whereas constructing that same model in a laboratory might take days. If adjustments are necessary after testing, they can be fed back into the program and a new prototype can be manufactured quickly.

Point-of-Sale Data

Information gathered at wholesale and retail outlets helps manufacturers know what and how much to produce. Point-of-sale information is usually transmitted electronically to the manufacturer through bar-code labels on merchandise. This system is a much faster and more accurate way of judging consumer response than waiting for the results of market surveys or hiring researchers to predict what people will buy. Manufacturers can replenish items that sell well and cut back or cease production of items that sit on store shelves too long. The concept of producing just the right number of products to avoid the costs of overproduction is known as "just in time" (JIT). Originally an American idea, JIT was perfected by Japanese manufacturers. Inventory Solutions Logistics Corporation states that the primary elements of JIT include having only the required inventory when needed; improving quality to zero defects; reducing lead time by reducing setup times, queue lengths, and lot sizes; revising the operations themselves; and accomplishing all these things at minimum cost.

Strong Supplier Relationships

Many manufacturers set up JIT inventory systems with their suppliers. Instead of maintaining large stockpiles of all the parts used in the manufacturing process, factory managers order only enough parts to fill their immediate needs, saving significant warehousing costs. To expedite the delivery of parts, manufacturers and suppliers may cluster together in the same geographic location. Some manufacturers save production time by relying totally on suppliers to inspect the quality of their parts.

Streamlined Workforce

Flexible manufacturers operate their factories with a relatively small core of full-time employees. These "lean" factories reduce labor costs and respond more quickly to change. Depending on their production needs, manufacturers may hire temporary workers or subcontract work to other companies—a practice known as "outsourcing."

Since the 1990s many large manufacturers have restructured their workforces in an attempt to become more flexible. They have deemphasized the traditional vertical organization in favor of a "flatter" organization. Downsizing, as this trend is called, reduces the number of midlevel managers who move information along a chain of command. As a result, plant workers tend to have more decision-making power and more direct communication with company officials.

Agile Production

The newest manufacturing concept—mass customization—sounds like a contradiction in terms. The goal of agile-production manufacturing is to offer customized products at close to the price and speed of mass-produced products. Far removed from the days of Ford's one-size-fits-all automobile, agile manufacturing envisions cars being made to match an actual customer's taste and budget—and in less than a week. In this scenario, car buyers use a computer to select all the features they want, from model, style, and color to the positioning of the instrument panel, styling of the body panels, and many other features. The computer relays the information to the factory. The plant could order the parts one day, assemble the parts according to customer specification the second day, and ship the completed car on the third day.

Nimble Factories

Although agile production may seem like science fiction, many U.S. factories are already applying the concept to their manufacturing processes. For example, many computer companies, such as IBM and Dell, make personal computers on demand. Sales representatives take customer orders via toll-free telephone lines. Increasingly, orders are also taken over the Internet. Then they enter the specifics of the order into the factory's electronic network, which digitizes the information and relays it to the plant floor. A worker called a "kitter" receives the information on a handheld bar-code reader. The kitter picks up the necessary parts at various bar-coded locations and then takes the completed kit to an assembly station. At the assembly station, another worker builds the machine, scanning the bar code on each part to make sure the factory system has subtracted it from the inventory. The assembled computer travels down the line to be tested automatically and packaged for overnight delivery to the customer.

Soft Manufacturing

Besides more direct communication between consumers and factories, agile production incorporates other techniques that take

Flexible manufacturers reduce labor costs and respond quickly to change by operating their factories with a small core of full-time employees and outsourcing work when necessary. (© Gary Gladstone/Corbis.)

manufacturing to new levels of mobility and quickness. Because agile production mixes human labor and machine labor, it is referred to as "soft manufacturing." In soft manufacturing, software and computer networks are just as important as hard-driving production machines. Agile manufacturers have discovered that humans, working with software networks, are more cost efficient than robots for many production jobs. Unlike robots, humans possess the dexterity and judgment needed for agile production. Robots, when used at all in agile production, have only a supporting role.


Agile production uses complete automation only for repetitive or dangerous tasks. For customized work, machines and workers are arranged in small groups, or cells. If a particular cell develops a problem, such as a machine malfunction, other cells can continue working. Like the machines used in flexible production, those used in agile production are extremely versatile. The advantage of agile production machines is that little or no time is required to convert from one task to another.


Agile production carries integration even further by including suppliers and salespeople in product development and manufacture. Computer networks link all manufacturing and distribution components—including workers on the plant floor—and give everyone access to the same up-to-the-minute information. Computer networks also enable team members to work in places other than the manufacturing site—in different parts of the city or even different parts of the world.

Rapid Design and Prototyping

Agile manufacturers use increasingly sophisticated CAD/CAM systems. In addition, some manufacturers are turning to virtual reality technology to test their design concepts. Caterpillar, Inc., for instance, uses virtual reality to test-drive huge earthmoving machines before they are built. An engineer sits in a mock-up of an earthmover and manipulates the controls in response to computer-generated three-dimensional graphics projected onto the walls of the test cubicle.

Supplier Relationships

Agile manufacturers follow JIT inventory systems less strictly than flexible manufacturers do because they find that low supplies of parts prevent them from responding to customer demands quickly. To speed up production, manufacturers now want suppliers who can furnish ready-made assemblies rather than just parts. Thus, suppliers themselves are evolving into factories. These "microfactories," or job shops, are sprouting up all across the United States.

A Comeback for U.S. Manufacturing

After observing the astonishing performance of agile factories, many industry analysts predict that the United States will soon recapture the lead in overall manufacturing productivity. In 2006 the United States surpassed Japan, Germany, and other industrial countries in the information technologies that drive agile production. Furthermore, Japan's rigid factory system, engineered to mass-produce high-quality identical products, has had difficulty adjusting to rapidly changing markets.

As agile production takes hold, it will require highly skilled workers such as product designers, process developers, computer specialists, and machine tool specialists. In addition, it is expected that mass customization will create a host of new white-collar jobs in support industries. For example, people will be needed to create industrial software, write technical manuals, and train companies in new manufacturing processes.

Employment forecasts for blue-collar workers are mixed, however. The most optimistic observers believe that agile production could stabilize or even increase the number of jobs for traditional factory workers in the United States. According to this view, much of the work now done abroad will return to the United States because moving products through an international pipeline will be too time consuming.

On the contrary, less optimistic observers believe that blue-collar jobs will decline as a result of agile production. According to this view, sophisticated machines in future factories will require little human assistance. For the period 2004 to 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a continuing decrease in many, if not most, manufacturing jobs (http://www.bls.gov/emp/emptab4.htm). Tellingly, manufacturing jobs do not appear in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' "Fastest Growing Occupations, 2004–14" chart (http://www.bls.gov/emp/emptab21.htm). In addition, the rising numbers of temporary workers, who typically earn lower wages and are entitled to no benefits, employed in manufacturing industries will have negative impacts on the company-employed blue-collar workforce.

Almost everyone agrees, however, that factory workers of the near future will need more training than in the past. Market forces demand that products be cheaper, more reliable, delivered in a timely manner, and well supported after purchase. These product market forces directly affect the labor market, requiring more productive workers with greater job skills. Even now, fast-growing agile manufacturers complain that they cannot find enough qualified workers.


Since 1992 the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, has been home to the Carrier Corporation factory. From the outside, the sleek, one-story plant looks more like an office building than a factory. On the inside, ceiling tiles absorb sound and reflect light, and the gray floors gleam. The quiet, light-filled interior contrasts markedly with the image of a traditional factory.

The Carrier factory, which produces made-to-order compressors for air conditioners, employs a workforce of about 500 men and women. Carrier chooses its workers carefully. Prospective employees must score in the top third of a state job skills test. Next comes a round of interviews. Those who pass the interviews must complete a grueling six-week training course. Even then, job applicants may be rejected if they have shown an inability to work as members of a team.

Enduring the stringent screening process is well worth the effort for those who are hired. Carrier allows its employees an unusual degree of autonomy, which, in turn, makes production work more interesting

As a result of new production methods, manufacturing companies will have a greater need for highly skilled workers, such as this laser scanner operator. (© Terry Wild Studio. Reproduced by permission.)

and challenging. If factory workers spot a problem, they can shut down production immediately without consulting a manager and, within limits, they can direct-order supplies. Workers learn several tasks so that they can fill in for each other. They are also taught how to fix their own machines to avoid waiting for maintenance personnel to repair them. In some instances they even install new machinery themselves, which gives them a sense of ownership and enhances their pride. This mix of varied and interesting work, as well as responsibility and autonomy, is a far cry from the endless repetitive tasks required of workers in Ford's assembly line.

The Advantages of Small Manufacturers

The Carrier plant may be a model for the future of U.S. manufacturing. Although the United States still has many huge factories, the trend is toward smaller, streamlined factories, often located in rural areas where labor and other costs tend to be lower. In the 1990s the combined workforce of the country's 500 largest industrial employers shrank. At the same time, manufacturers with fewer than 100 employees added more than 500,000 jobs nationally.

Many industry observers believe that small manufacturers will be the foundation for a U.S. manufacturing renaissance. The shift from mass production to agile production, they say, favors smaller companies. In the race to the marketplace, lean and nimble manufacturers can get off the mark more quickly than manufacturers weighed down by a cumbersome organization. A case in point is Ultra Pac, Inc., a manufacturer of recyclable plastic food containers in Rogers, Minnesota. Using specialized equipment, this small company can produce customized containers and ship them within three days of receiving an order. Many of Ultra Pac's bigger rivals can take three days just to deliver standard containers already on their shelves. In the new global economy, bigger isn't always better.

A Different Viewpoint

Some observers are not so quick to write off large manufacturing companies. They note that markets for mass-produced items still exist in today's global economy. In addition, large corporations have more financial and networking resources available to compete with large foreign rivals in global industries such as telecommunications and pharmaceuticals. Moreover, many multinational corporations, such as IBM and Motorola, have shown their ability to downsize and decentralize various operations to achieve the agility of smaller factories. Supporters of large manufacturing companies point out that these firms and their partners still account for most U.S. industrial jobs, sales, and output each year.

The Benefits of Global Cooperation

Rival U.S. and foreign corporations are discovering that it is often profitable to pool resources. Instead of competing against each other, some U.S. manufacturers and their overseas counterparts have entered into joint manufacturing and marketing ventures. For example, GM joined with Toyota to produce the Geo Prizm and other cars. Such joint efforts save both companies a great deal of money in research and development. Other companies have gone beyond partnering to merge into one company, as Daimler-Benz and Chrysler did in 1998.

While U.S. manufacturers continue to establish overseas subsidiaries, foreign manufacturers are establishing factories in the United States and employing domestic labor. Japanese automakers, for instance, have built factories in several areas of the United States—Honda has four plants in Ohio alone—and more European companies are expected to expand their U.S. operations. European manufacturers find that it is more cost effective to locate in the United States because labor costs are lower here. The United States also offers a strong industrial infrastructure and a market for complex products.


The United States has become a service-producing economy. The new information economy created by the computer revolution is having as far reaching an impact on U.S. employment as the movement from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But manufacturing still has a pulse, and it has rebounded before from hard times.

This volume describes the many different occupations in the more than twenty industries that make up the field of manufacturing. By carefully examining each occupation and evaluating your talents and interests, you can decide if one is right for you. As you look into manufacturing, however, remember two key trends: First, the demand for product diversity, quality, and service will reduce the need for unskilled production workers. Second, flexible production and agile production systems require an innovative and highly productive workforce.

Many manufacturers are suffering from a shortage of skilled crafters, electricians, and technicians. From 2006 to 2014 thousands of new scientific, engineering, and technical jobs will be added in various manufacturing industries. As manufacturing becomes more computer intensive, those workers who

The pharmaceutical industry invests heavily in research that may lead to the discovery of new products or to improvements in existing products. The industry tests thousands of substances each year in its search for new products. (© Brownie Harris/Corbis.)

combine technical training with computer skills will have the best opportunities for employment and advancement. A 2004 article in Managing Automation states that "online training courses are gaining popularity as manufacturers search for new ways to train existing workers and attract new ones."

After some very rough times, many industry insiders say better days are ahead for U.S. manufacturing. A 2005 survey by Deloitte during National Manufacturing Week found that 63 percent of respondents—corporate decision makers in the manufacturing industry—planned to expand their facilities within the next three years. And in February 2005, Michigan added 9,000 manufacturing jobs, which in part was due to recalls from short-term layoffs of auto workers.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production