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How can American manufacturing be reinvented to thrive in an era of globalization?

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Could Manufacturing Become a White-Collar Industry?

Maybe, but it might not translate into lots of jobs.

People in suits in a factory.

Comstock/Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Thinkstock.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We'd like to hear your best ideas for that. Please submit them here.

Despite high unemployment, America’s manufacturers say they can’t find enough people to fill their ranks. Yet, when was the last time a guidance counselor told a student, “I think you should consider going into factory work?”

Our manufacturing industry is in trouble. The sector makes up more than half of U.S. exports and accounts for two-thirds of America's research and development expenditures. But as Amy Kaslow recently wrote in Fortune, a lack of skilled workers means that companies are forced to move their operations overseas.

“There is a shortage of entry-level people who can read basic blueprints; they lack basic math, machine set-up, basic design," Terri Kaufman, the executive director of the Harrisburg, Pa.-based South Central Workforce Investment Board, told Kaslow. "Companies are at risk: they cannot find people to do the job, they lose business, and they move out."

Kaslow also spoke to Craig Giffi, vice chairman and consumer and industrial products industry leader at Deloitte LLP. He thinks the problem is perception. “[T]here is such strong bias against manufacturing work among adults who advise young people about career choices, and skilled workers are in such short supply."

If that’s true, could rebranding manufacturing as a white-collar job fix the shortage of available workers? What if middle-class kids thought of manufacturing as somewhat akin to accounting—not glamorous, maybe, but a respectable, dependable way to earn a living? The good news is that manufacturing is heading in a direction that will appeal to more ambitious students—the bad news is it’s not going to bring back jobs for those who need them the most.

Before we can glimpse manufacturing’s future, it’s worth paying attention to its past. I grew up in Nova Scotia during the 1980s, in the political shadow of the Sydney Steel Corp. SYSCO was established in 1967 by the Canadian government as part of an effort to oversee the gradual shut down of Cape Breton's troubled coal mining and steel-making industry. It was clear to anyone who was paying attention that the coal was running out. Dominion Steel and Coal Corp., which ran the mines and steel plant, had announced that it was pulling out. SYSCO was intended to be a stop-gap measure, to help wean the region off of an obsolete industry. The goal was to shut down completely by 1981.

Instead, the plant limped along until 2001. No government could bear to be the one that pulled the plug, so the children of people who were meant to be the last workers in that factory ended up working in it themselves. And every time the government tried to shut it down, there were protests.

Running a steel mill is a terrible job. It's hot, it's dirty, people get sick, people get hurt, and it's left behind a Love Canal-esque toxic waste disaster area. It’s exactly the kind of blue-collar work that Kaslow says has tarnished manufacturing. But it was the only work people knew. So they fought and rioted for the right to continue to go to a terrible job to preserve their livelihood.

In time, the SYSCO plant was shut down, disassembled, and shipped overseas. Towns were emptied, and people moved on. Many have ended up in Fort McMurray, working in Alberta's tar sands, yet another unbelievably dirty and dangerous job.

The details are unique, but the general arc of this story will be familiar to anyone living in the Rust Belt or former extraction industry areas in North America. First everyone worked in manufacturing, then no one did.

The worst part of this is that there's every indication that manufacturing is coming back to North America—it's just coming back without bringing jobs. Forbes’ Tim Worstall thinks we're seeing the end of manufacturing as mass employment. He points out that even in China, Foxconn (whose motto should be: "We make the iPhone and pretty much every other gadget") has begun replacing $5,000-per-year workers with robots. Automation is getting steadily cheaper, and companies have every motivation to take advantage of it.

We’ve seen this kind of transition before, and it wasn’t easy. It happened with farming. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, 95 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms. In 2012, that number was 2 percent. The rise of farming machines, the Industrial Revolution, and then the Green Revolution caused all that farming work to evaporate. Today, very, very few people oversee a vast system of semiautomated agriculture. Those farming jobs aren’t coming back.

In other words, career advisers with a bias against manufacturing jobs might have a point. Manufacturing is in for a rough ride. A growth in automation means an increasingly computerized production chain, which in turn means a physical world increasingly subject to the crushing march of Moore's Law.

One decidedly white-collar niche of the industry is growing—but it’s not going to employ massive numbers of people. At the same time that manufacturing is returning to the United States in the form of large, automated factories, a different smaller-scale manufacturing revolution is in progress. Don’t think white collar or blue collar—think black turtlenecks and architect glasses.

As machining and rapid-prototyping tools become increasingly computerized, the forces that made desktop computers and smartphones affordable have turned to the tools of industrial design. Like computers, it begins with hobbyists, cranks, and visionaries, and like computers, the new field of personal manufacturing is going to work its way into the mainstream.

Prices are collapsing for CNC machining suites (which combine computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture) and highly specialized rapid-prototyping gear. These things used to only be in the hands of the big companies. Today, hobbyists are putting their cash together to install second-hand computer-controlled precision lathes and laser cutters next to their workbenches. In a decade, consumer-friendly versions of that stuff will be available at Home Depot.

At the same time, today's 3-D printers—whether they are the glue-gun-like additive layering processes or the laser-powered sintering that fuses blocks of powder into unearthly objects—are crude devices, akin to the dot-matrix printers of 1983. They are barely useful, but their potential is thrilling—and some very smart people are working hard to make them better.

These early adopters there are members of the Maker and DIY movement, a loose network of hobbyists and hackers. They have their internally grown proto-industrialists like MakerBot Industries, Shapeways, and Adafruit Industries, and the big guns are starting to take notice. After all, computer-aided design giant Autodesk didn’t buy Instructables for charitable reasons.

They see a future where mass production is replaced by mass customization. Highly automated and rapidly reconfigurable production lines will mean much less standardized output, with profitable small runs. This in turn means lower barriers to entry and an explosion of opportunities for people interested in becoming their own industrial designer. There's a clear aesthetic of Kickstarter/Maker /DIY manufacturing culture that brings with it an expectation that the new manufacturing people will be (self-made) industrial designers with an independent streak of inventiveness and entrepreneurship.

The white collar/blue collar division is left over from a time when there was a clear division between the information and management workers and the dumb labor. That era has long since passed. Ever had a guy come over to fix your cable? There's a job that most would consider blue-collar, but today your repair person is laden down with countless gadgets and gizmos and more computing power than entire GM management team had in 1965.

If the DIY culture builds into an industry, then manufacturing could indeed be more hip, eventually eclipsing Silicon Valley-esque computer startups. That may be good news for as far as making manufacturing palatable to career counselors and the entrepreneurial set. It’s less good for people who just want a stable job.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas for that. Please submit them here.

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