Toward the end of the first century B.C., the Roman author and ex-slave Phaedrus wrote, “Things are not always as they seem. The first appearance deceives many.” In the world of manufacturing, this is as true today as it was 20 centuries ago.
For some time now, it has been considered axiomatic that American workers are falling behind in terms of job skills and engineering expertise. The corollary-that this lack of skilled workers is contributing to the current explosion of outsourcing to places like China and India-has also reached the point where it is simply taken for granted.
However, in recent weeks a number of reports and news items have called these assumptions into question.
For example, earlier this month, Issues in Science and Technology magazine (Dallas) published a piece titled “Where the Engineers Are.” In this article, Vivek Wadhwa, Gary Gereffi, Ben Rissing and Ryan Ong, all researchers at Duke University (Durham, NC), report that an analysis of salary and employment data indicates no shortage of engineers in the United States. On the contrary, they say it is India and China that are coming up short, in part because education standards in those countries are spotty at best.
To support these conclusions, the report’s authors cite the fact that survey respondents say they were able to fill 80 percent of engineering vacancies in 4 months or less-not an unreasonable amount of time, and hardly an indication of an engineer “shortage.” In addition, although it is common in many industries for companies to offer signing bonuses to help them recruit fresh talent, 88 percent of respondents said they offered few if any signing bonuses to potential engineering employees. These findings fit well with the feedback ASSEMBLY magazine has received regarding the job market that U.S. engineers currently face.
At the other end of the job skills spectrum, Toyota Motor Co. (Tokyo) recently began construction of its latest plant, in Mississippi. Think about that: Mississippi, a state that is often regarded as being near the bottom in terms of educational excellence. And yet Toyota will be depending on local workers to build some of the most reliable and highly regarded automobiles in the world. To this end, the company has already begun partnering with local colleges and technical schools to provide automotive-specific worker training. Clearly Toyota thinks Mississippians are plenty smart if it is willing to make this kind of investment.
Finally, there was a story this week in the Chicago Tribune about American Whistle Corp. (Worthington, OH), which is still going strong in the very heart of America’s Heartland. This is a company that manufactures a product retailing for as little as $3. What says “Made in China” more than an ordinary police or referee’s whistle? And yet it’s an American company that’s doing the work, just a hop, skip and a jump away from where Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) is currently idling a pair of plants in Cleveland.
Laissez faire economists are fond of citing the efficiency of the marketplace when it comes to allocating resources and making business decisions. But, there’s something about the current outsourcing craze that smacks of the irrational. This is not to say there isn’t a place for outsourcing in the U.S. manufacturing sector. Nor would ASSEMBLY ever say the U.S. educational system isn’t in need of some serious help-on the contrary, this magazine has said as much many times in the past: Education and healthcare costs are issues that need to be addressed, today.
Nonetheless, it seems the default setting for many manufacturers has become, “send the work offshore, unless there’s a compelling reason not to.” And that’s not right, for a number of reasons: First and foremost, because as Americans it’s important to invest in our own country, if for no other reason than to maintain the economic base that has been handed down to us; second, because American workers have shown time and again that they are more than capable of competing against the best in the world; and third, because if current trends continue, U.S. manufacturers will be forced to send work offshore because Americans really will lack the necessary expertise.
Every day here at ASSEMBLY magazine, we have the privilege of writing about the latest in smart, innovative assembly technology and the way it is being used in factories all over the world. Maybe that’s why we are so bullish on the future of U.S. manufacturing, because we are constantly being made aware of just what American engineers and workers are capable of. Engineers, designers and, above all, managers need to remember that their workers are a valuable resource, and that outsourcing is best viewed as a last resort-for the sake of American manufacturing and their own long-term productivity. It would be a shame if short-term cost cutting were to allow all that American ingenuity to go to waste.
Don't Give up on U.S. Workers
May 9, 2007