Writing in the New York Times, education expert Jeff Selingo described how 10,000 people applied for 850 production jobs at a Siemens factory in Charlotte, and only about 1500 were able to pass tests requiring 9th grade reading, writing and math skills. “In our factories, there’s a computer about every 20 or 30 feet”, said the recently retired chief executive of Siemens USA. Elsewhere in the article, Selingo describes the computer as the “tool box” of the factory floor, providing the diagnostics and adjustments that screwdrivers and socket sets previously done with screwdrivers and socket sets.
In order to find good people, Siemens has had to set up an apprentice program in mechatronics with Central Piedmont Community College, and recruit at 15 high schools in the Charlotte area. Graduates come out with no student loans and jobs that pay more than $50,000 per year. One recent recruit is Chad Robinson, who ranked in the top 10 percent of his high school class and was considering studying engineering at UNC . Robinson said, “A lot of my friends who majored in engineering in college told me they wish they had done the apprenticeship because my work experience will put me ahead of everyone else.” These days apprenticeships are just the beginning of the education process, not the end of it.
This high tech work isn’t confined to the factory floor. Consider farm machinery, which today can mean million dollar reapers in which the operator sits high above the crops in an air conditioned cab monitoring systems while GPS precisely turns them and take them down each row, bar coding what they have harvested. There is a lot at stake financially at keeping these machines running. Selingo describes a program in Walla Walla, where John Deere dealerships pay all the expenses for a two-year community college training program from which technicians move into $40,000 jobs, again, debt free.
This relationship between capital and skills is the subject of a larger study that Selingo references carried out by Ball State University in Indiana called "The Myth And The Reality Of Manufacturing In America". Researchers there showed that about seven out of eight job losses in manufacturing during the 2000's was due to automation, not outsourcing. Just as importantly, though, these researchers found that American manufacturing production has risen upwards along a geometric growth curve since 1920, and is now at its highest point in history. Not as many people work in manufacturing as they once did, but those that remain are producing far more. For durable goods, a particularly area of U.S. strength, production per job more than doubled between 1998 and 2012.
What's most interesting in the Ball State figures is how this productivity correlates with investment in plant and machinery. The highest productivity is in petroleum products, at $733,861 per job, followed by chemical products at $395,718 per job, and computer and electronic parts at $244,473 per job. The lowest productivity is apparel, at $45,930 per job; textiles, at $59,555 per job; and furniture, at $62,438 per job. Guess which industries saw some of the greatest declines in employment since 2000? You guessed it, apparel, textiles and furniture, which fled the American South, which traditionally sold itself based on low-cost labor.
Productivity correlates with investment in plant and equipment, and so do wage levels. Think of the hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars that go into refineries, chip fabrication plants and turbine factories. It takes a lot of engineering, fabrication and maintenance to first design these plants, keep them running, and update them to keep them ahead of competitors worldwide. You wouldn't hire an untrained driver to chauffeur a Rolls Royce, and you wouldn't hire someone who couldn't read technical manuals, write up job reports or make geometric calculations to run expensive and highly automated milling machines.
The mass production of commodities has gone to the Foxconn's of China. U.S. companies are moving to higher-value production in which constant re-engineering is a fact of life. Neither can wait for K-12 or higher ed systems to reform themselves, but must instead get in the training game and engineer new approaches that will deliver skilled people today. A third conclusion is that as manufacturing becomes more automated and re-engineering becomes a constant fact of life, salaries and production jobs will tend to merge in salary level. There will be fewer jobs per company, but those that remain will be higher paying. Forget Foxconn and thousands of workers repetitively moving like machines. The future is people with white lab coats and iPads, wearing hard hats, but doing math.