Let’s not give up on manufacturing in America

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Whenever I meet someone for the first time and they ask what I do for a living, and I tell them I am in manufacturing, the typical response is, “I thought we didn’t make anything here anymore.”

I am quick to point out that we still make a lot of “stuff” in the United States.

Despite rumors suggesting the demise of U.S. manufacturing, I am happy to report that the industry is alive and doing pretty well, even in the current economy.

From the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the way we travel, everything that is not natural has been influenced by manufacturing.

Some of the facts:

The U.S., with roughly 4 percent of the world population, accounts for 21 percent of global production. China is at 15 percent and Japan at 12 percent.

Manufacturing employment in the U.S. has dropped, but we have also become more productive.

Manufacturing has in many cases gone high-tech, with computers and automation routine in even the smallest operations.

The National Association of Manufacturers reported that in 2010, the average compensation for a manufacturing worker was a whopping $77,186 in wages and benefits. That was nearly 37 percent higher than the average pay and benefits in all industries.

Sales for machine tools and related items are at a 10-year high in this country.

There is a growing “re-shoring” initiative going on where many of the products that were outsourced are coming back to America. This trend is predicted to continue as countries like China have become more expensive and companies have encountered numerous supply-chain issues.

The U.S. has favorable demographics and natural resources to many other countries, including the European Union. Japan is moving more production to the U.S. as its costs are soaring, workforce is aging, and economy is remaining anemic.

Now it’s not likely that we will see much of the lower-value production come back, and there are conflicting opinions on the subject. I believe we need a certain level of lower-skilled jobs for those who either have not learned the most basic job skills or for whatever reason are not able to obtain high-level skills.

The argument that we want Americans to have only the best high-tech jobs works great assuming all our kids will graduate high school, go on to college and always have a great job waiting for them.

We have seen the harsh reality of a system that has left a lot of people behind and not offered opportunity for everyone. These people still can be productive members of the economy and in many cases can realize their potential through on-the-job training. They also will be more likely to obtain employee benefits through a stable manufacturing job.

According to many sources, there are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs available in U.S. manufacturing — but few people qualified (or willing) to fill those jobs.

How can this be? We have spent several decades steering our younger generations away from manufacturing and toward what has been perceived as better careers. Schools have done away with many vocational programs, and kids simply have not been exposed to the career potential of modern manufacturing.

Too many people envision smokestacks and dirty environments related to the industrial age. Modern manufacturing is all about technology and there are plenty of opportunities for “techies,” not to mention accountants, engineers, sales professionals, etc.

Additional benefits to a strong manufacturing sector are the ability to produce what we consume and to sell our productive capacity to the rest of the world. We were the best at this for well more than 100 years, and we still have the ability to out-produce anyone on the planet.

The multiplier effect of manufacturing creates many other jobs, which increases the tax base for federal government, cities, counties and states. We in manufacturing feel that increasing domestic production and exports of U.S. goods would have a significantly positive impact to our economic and social issues — and in fact might be the best solution to reducing our massive deficit.

Tom Neppl has been CEO and owner of Springs Fabrication, Inc., since 1986, and is a member of the presidents council of the National Association of Manufacturers.