A gap has opened in the American manufacturing sector, and business as usual can't close it. The problem is a deficit between the 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs the Manufacturing Institute has projected to open in the period between 2015 to 2025 and the nearly 2 million skilled workers not present to fill those jobs. If the U.S. manufacturing sector is to fill those jobs, economists argue, something has to change.
The manufacturing gap was the subject of a 2001 report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte that has received regular updates as new numbers have come available. As of 2016, the 2-million-worker gap represents all of the highly skilled engineers, fabricators and other essential workers not passing through American universities and taking their places in one of the most productive sectors of the economy.
The American manufacturing sector is serious business. All by itself, this sector is larger than most of the national economies of the world. Every year, it's responsible for adding over $2 trillion to the gross domestic product, and investment in this sector has traditionally had downstream effects on every other sector. For every manufacturing job in the United States, an estimated 2.5 jobs appear in the community near the employing plant.
The benefits of domestic manufacturing don't end with large-scale economic effects. Relatively recent technological changes in the production of goods have made factory workers much more productive than in the past, and their average wages reflect that. The average manufacturing worker in the United States earns $77,000 a year, which is far higher than the national average, reports CNBC. Entry-level engineers earn salaries in the high five figures, making this one of the most promising fields for new graduates looking for lucrative careers.
But those graduates haven't shown up, according to the Manufacturing Institute's numbers. Part of the problem, identified by Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, is that many Americans have a very old-fashioned idea about what a job in manufacturing is like. She suggests that young people, picturing factory work as it was in the 1950s, imagine a career in manufacturing as a series of boring, uncreative line jobs with repetitive duties and little opportunity for advancement. This grim picture may drive promising young people away from careers as engineers and machinists, two fields in desperate need of skilled hands.
This obsolete picture is in direct conflict with the kind of high-tech jobs that the modern manufacturing sector creates, and Pritzker suggests public-awareness campaigns to promote awareness of the great jobs available all over the country. One approach is to promote industry-education partnerships that encourage young people to pursue engineering specialties. By staging career day events and factory tours for teenagers, manufacturers may be able to spark interest among just the type of bright young minds most dearly needed.
Another approach to closing the manufacturing gap is direct recruitment in universities across the country. Many young undergraduates enter college undecided on their majors. By reaching these students as freshmen, or at least early enough that they can choose manufacturing-friendly majors such as metallurgy or mechanical engineering, the future job market could be well-staffed by qualified young jobseekers.
A final, and somewhat drastic, alternative to letting 2 million jobs go unfilled is to import the talent American manufacturers need from overseas. As of 2013, more than 5 million of America's 28.9 million engineers were born overseas, according to the National Science Foundation. This number has climbed since at least 2003, as foreign STEM students take up residence in the United States and do jobs for which too few native-born citizens have qualification.
The gap that has opened continues to widen in American manufacturing is an unfolding crisis that threatens to slow the growth of a major sector of the economy. Proposed solutions to the problem range from inspirational campaigns targeted at young people to recruiting booths on college campuses. In the meantime, ambitious immigrants moving to the United States continue to close the gap.
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