Advanced manufacturing industries and techniques appeal to those hoping to strengthen the United States’ industrial base, but they may not mean salvation for the middle class.
On June 24 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, President Obama announced the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership program, which will bring together leaders of academia and private industry, and sprinkle them with government funding to “support the creation of good jobs by helping U.S. manufacturers reduce costs, improve quality, and accelerate product development.”
Sounds like a well-intentioned effort to encourage the type of manufacturing that befits a world-leading economy.
“If we want a robust, growing economy,” Obama told the crowd, “we need a robust, growing manufacturing sector.”
Manufacturing’s supporters have been saying as much for years. Now the rest of the country has digested the news that Internet stocks and rampant homebuilding are not, in fact, the keys to economic prosperity, and they’ve begun to join the chorus touting manufacturing’s virtues.
But the President also hit on a conundrum, whether he meant to or not.
In his Carnegie Mellon speech, he said, “Companies have learned to become more efficient, with fewer employees. In Pittsburgh, you know this as well as anybody. Steel mills that once needed a thousand workers now do the same work with a hundred. While these changes have resulted in great wealth for some Americans, and drastically increased productivity, they’ve also caused major disruptions for many others.”
The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) initiative is intended to counteract those diminishing forces by boosting America’s prowess in emerging manufacturing sectors, including nanotech, biotech, green energy, and information technology. Retraining workers for jobs in those industries will keep the manufacturing base healthy, the thinking goes.
But it butts up against another AMP mission, which is to boost efficiency. “How do we do things better, faster, cheaper, [and] design and manufacture superior products that allow us to compete all over the world?” the President asked.
That’s where two forces collide: operational excellence on the one hand, and manufacturing employment on the other. If we strive to manufacture better, faster, and cheaper, can we truly expect to restore the manufacturing employment base that once formed the bulk of our middle class?
Consider that the President delivered his AMP speech after touring Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center, and that he lauded the virtues of robots during his speech. As translated, “better, faster, cheaper” may mean jobs for robots instead of people. We need only look at the auto industry to understand the effects on a workforce when a quest for operational efficiency combines with advanced robotics. It can kill jobs instead of creating them.
So, are we speaking with a forked tongue when we trumpet advances in operational efficiency while also promising to revitalize manufacturing employment?
Is it time we came to grips with a smaller manufacturing workforce, and, with it, a smaller middle class?
What do you think?