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Editor's Note: Lean and Green

July 30, 2009
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Bill Strauss spent many of his summers working in his father’s machine shop in Brooklyn during the 1970s. He saw computer numerical controls adopted into the shop, which made operations easier, but also eliminated his job of moving the big, clunky patterns.

Strauss says that is both the good and bad news to productivity growth-companies are able to produce more, but with less people.

“Productivity allowed U.S. manufacturers to be among the highest producers in the world,” Strauss says. If we had not allowed producers to be quality conscious, we would have lost more jobs; our world-class products have allowed the U.S. to continue production here. And, he adds, these trends are not just unique to the United States-productivity gains have led to the employment base’s decline over time.

Strauss has since moved on to other jobs. Currently a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, he analyzes the performance of the manufacturing sector, including the steel and auto industries, as well as the Midwest and national economy. He also is the spokesperson for the monthly release of the Chicago Fed Midwest Manufacturing Index (CFMMI), and recently spoke on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview program (www.chicagopublicradio.org/Content.aspx?audioID=35506), discussing the 21st century workforce.

I had a chance to ask Strauss about the future of manufacturing in this country.

“Manufacturing output continues to rise in this country,” Strauss says, “and those increases are driven by very strong performance in productivity.”

He is optimistic about manu­facturing’s long-term future in this country, and expects the industry to come back stronger after the downturn. People are still needed in manufacturing-even with all the automation in use-especially to replace today’s retiring workforce.

The situation today mirrors that of the Industrial Revolution’s effect on agriculture, Strauss says. After the Industrial Revolution, industrial jobs in big cities drew people away from the farms.

However, far from causing a food shortage, the migration still allowed the United States to produce enough food for its population and for export. The secret: productivity. Agriculture previously employed 1 in 2 people, but now that number is closer to 2%.

Today’s cities also are becoming a little greener with green jobs.

While going green sometimes may seem like an added expense, several companies have told me that going green always ends up saving money, by saving water and reducing energy and waste. The term green jobs can encompass a range of positions, including blue collar and white collar jobs. Think of it as a grass-stained collar.

Nondestructive testing is, by its very nature, a green concept. The idea is to not destroy the object or material, but examine it without impairing its future usefulness. Producing quality products has enabled production to stay in the United States, and as long as our ­country continues its efficient, value-added manufacturing, we are headed in the right direction.

E-mail bangertm@bnpmedia.com to let me know your thoughts, or join the discussion at www.LinkedIn.com.

And let me know-did technology replace your summer job?

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