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From The Editor

Manufacturing Tomorrow

Reading about the industry and its future.

January 3, 2013
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As I write this, America has just reelected a president, celebrated a holiday of family and probably too many mashed potatoes, and started preparing for the New Year. By the time you read this, the country will be beginning resolution season. Health and finances often receive more attention, and one important economic area to look at is the manufacturing industry.

As David Dornfeld, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, told me, manufacturing seems to be an issue everyone can get behind, regardless of their politics. But although manufacturing is widely supported, there is not a lot of agreement on how to improve it here in the United States. Although the country is still the world’s top manufacturer, competition is everywhere. Some say that American manufacturers should bring jobs back from offshore, offer more training and higher wages, while others say that the answer is to look to places like Germany as an example. Ideas are plentiful, but easy answers are not.

Adam Davidson, the co-founder and co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, wrote about the changing economy a year ago in the Atlantic with his “Making It in America” cover story. “Across America, many factory floors look radically different than they did 20 years ago: far fewer people, far more high-tech machines, and entirely different demands on the workers who remain,” Davidson writes. “The still-unfolding story of manufacturing’s transformation is, in many respects, that of our economic age.”

 Davidson also covered the story of our economic age in a New York Times Magazine article examining the oft-cited skills gap, “Skills Don’t Pay the Bills.” He concludes that “The so-called skills gap is really a gap in education, and that affects us all.” Readers responded: As of this writing, the article had received 112 online comments, offering almost as many opinions on the future of manufacturing. (To read these articles, visit http://bit.ly/OLeKde and http://nyti.ms/UWpLkC.)

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School, says although companies may have difficulty hiring new workers, this is not a skills gap. When I spoke with Cappelli, the author of “Why Good People Can’t Get Hired: The Myth of the Skills Gap,” he said that the problem is that companies want to hire someone who have already held a certain position, and are often unwilling to provide training. He cited the example of a cotton candy machine operator job posting that called for prior experience, even though it would take 20 minutes to train someone on it. (I can vouch for this, having briefly sold cotton candy in college.)

As the industry continues to evolve, Quality aims to cover manufacturing across the country, whether it is a plant in Seattle or a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. Wherever you are, best wishes for the New Year. I hope your professional life skills are in demand, and that you are able to spend time with family, friends, and as many mashed potatoes as you’d like. 

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