The Production Floor

Thursday, June 14th, 2012 

Manufacturing jobs have become an issue in the 2012 election as the nation looks to recover and find its financial footing. The Obama administration has announced several initiatives to help create more manufacturing jobs. In a national survey conducted for the Alliance for American Manufacturing last year, 94 percent of participants described creating manufacturing jobs in the U.S. as either the most important or a very important priority for the President and Congress. 

Much has been said about jobs going overseas but manufacturers are also finding trouble filling jobs available now. Even as manufacturing jobs have declined over decades, the economy has still grown leading us to ask, why does manufacturing matter? What has been the impact of shifts in manufacturing and how does it affect Americans’ well-being? With the help of the Public Insight Network, we asked over a thousand people these questions. Here are some of the responses: 

Douglas Kleinhans of Sheboygan, Wis., has worked in custom machine building for more than 30 years:

My present salary is 25% lower than it was a decade ago. The number of places offering good paying jobs has diminished considerably. In my lifetime, the company I spent 17 years with went from having four manufacturing plants in the state to having none.

Amy Hemmert of Santa Cruz, Calif., is president and co-founder of a company that has made the conscious decision to make its products in the U.S.

I believe that it's important for our country to have a strong manufacturing base. That's why my company, Laptop Lunches Bento-ware, is committed to manufacturing our core products here in California. We benefit in several ways: 1. It makes us feel good to know that we're providing jobs to families in our area. 2. We have shorter lead times. 3. We can visit the factory regularly and communicate with them easily (and on our own time zone!) 3. We can address any quality issues immediately and cost-effectively. 4. We don't have to deal with import procedures, fees, and delays.

Andrew Kinney of Apex, N.C., has worked in electronics manufacturing since 1989:

The loss of manufacturing reduces opportunities for individuals with high school educations to obtain high-paying jobs with good benefits. I worked in a Texas Instruments manufacturing facility in Johnson City, TN, which closed in 1992, and it was heartbreaking to see co-workers I had known for years who were reliable, dedicated workers laid off. The people at that plant could not have performed better - it was the most profitable facility in the division, with the lowest accident and lost time rates - and yet it was shut down. US workers can and will do good work when they are treated with respect.

Dan Conroy of Webster, Wis., works in the manufacture of motion control devices:

Unskilled manufacturing has declined, but advanced manufacturing is alive and well and thriving. The good jobs are great and getting even better. While it is true that more can be done with fewer people due to productivity gains, that does not mean layoffs - just not doing replacement hiring on a 1 to 1 ratio for attrition. In fact, there is a labor shortage for skilled machinists, and technicians. Our machinists make over $50,000 per year.

Dana Weeks of Columbus, Ohio, worked several manufacturing jobs in her career. Today, she is unemployed:

In 1973, my senior year in high school, I worked full time, riveting together Geico fold-up baby strollers. I had odd jobs in machine shops, even made horse bridles and spurs. In '76, I made ski boots for Hansen. In 1983, I built computer hard drives in Longmont for MiniScribe. They laid me off in 1984 when all the production went to Singapore. (MiniScribe crashed & burned a year or so later, re-shipping failed field returns as new units to IBM. A story in itself!) And so on. In the 1970s and early '80s, finding entry level factory work in Boulder, Colo. was easy.

I never got a handle on what was happening, but in the '80s and 90s, factory jobs just went away. Places where there was work, the cars in the company parking lots got older and more beat-up looking, as the wages went to crap.




What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.