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America's Education Catch-22, Part 1

We no longer have a workforce suitable for manufacturing.

By Petrarch  |  January 31, 2012

The Atlantic magazine recently had a profoundly thought-provoking article titled Making It in America on the subject of America's lost factory jobs that once allowed unskilled workers to join the middle-class.  The article itself is well worth reading, but it raises more questions which need to be explored.

First, and most importantly, it explodes one myth, that manufacturing is dying in America.  It isn't. 

Depending on which stats you believe, the United States is either the No. 1 or No. 2 manufacturer in the world (China may have surpassed us in the past year or two). Whatever the country’s current rank, its manufacturing output continues to grow strongly; in the past decade alone, output from American factories, adjusted for inflation, has risen by a third.

There is nothing wrong with American manufacturing companies; they are going from strength to strength.  Sure, China is making all kinds of stuff, as befits a nation with some four times our population that's starting to enter the ranks of the middle-income.  If China were as wealthy a nation on a per capita basis, it would be perfectly logical to expect its manufacturing output to be four times ours.  Germany's manufacturing output is perhaps around a fifth of ours, and nobody talks about "the death of German manufacturing."  Germany is much smaller than America, that's all.

Why, then, do we have permanent unemployment of the Rust Belt?  Because while manufacturing output has grown, manufacturing employment has plummeted.

The reason is immediately plain to anyone walking onto a modern factory floor:

In the pre-computer age, machines were laid out in long rows, each machine tended constantly by one worker who was considered skilled if he knew the temperament of his one, ornery ward. There was a quality-assurance department, typically in a lab off the factory floor, whose workers occasionally checked to make sure the machinists were doing things right. At Standard, today, as at most U.S. factories, machines are laid out in cells. One skilled operator, like Luke, oversees several machines, performing on-the-spot quality checks and making appropriate adjustments as needed.

The Factory Ghost Town

Your humble correspondent has had exactly this experience.  Some years ago, I consulted in an automobile engine plant that was so old it predated the invention of the automobile, having been built originally to manufacture bicycles.  The assembly line dated back to the 1930s, the floor being made of original wooden blocks to safely capture the metal shavings; the engines assembled had, at heart, not changed since the 1950s.

The operation and staffing of the plant, too, resembled old movies.  Hundreds of people stood alongside the line, screwing on this or adjusting that.  Of course, there were now computer monitors and powered tools so the output and quality was far better than it would have been in the old days, but fundamentally the operation was the same.

Modern cars require a totally different sort of high-compression engine block design that could not be put together on the old line.  So the car company was building a brand-new, state of the art factory right next to the historic old one.  Walking through a bay door from old to new was like walking into a different world.

Instead of fairly low 12-foot ceilings, the new factory was easily thirty feet high with the lofty heights criss-crossed by automatic conveyors.  There was no visible "assembly line" in the linear sense of the old line; parts flowed through the factory in all directions in an intricate, computer-controlled mesh.

Emphasis on "computer-controlled": you could walk for hundreds of yards down the wide, brilliantly lit aisles and not see a single person other than a speeding forklift driver delivering another pallet of components.  Of course, there were people around if you looked closely: electricians, industrial-computer programmers, engineers of various types.  But uneducated bolt-tighteners who did one thing all day that took five minutes to explain?  Nary a one.

Would the new plant be entirely automated?  No, but it certainly wouldn't be hiring thousands of high-school dropouts.  The Atlantic explains what's required to be a modern high-level manufacturing machine operator:

When Luke got hired at Standard, he had two years of technical schoolwork and five years of on-the-job experience, and it took one more month of training before he could be trusted alone with the Gildemeisters [high-end machine tools].

The pay?  $30 an hour - solid middle-class wages, for sure, but no better than that.  This was the reward for an education that, while not a full college degree, is vastly more than a high school diploma much less a dropout.

The Atlantic article centers around just such a person: Maddie, a single mother whose pregnancy kept her out of college.  She has a high school diploma and is hardworking and smart, but has no possibility of advancement.  Her factory employer likes her personality and respects her work ethic, but she's qualified for only the most rudimentary of jobs.  Anything more would require years, not of on-the-job training, but full-time school which no minimum-wage single mother could hope to obtain.

To sum up: where factories once represented a ladder of learning that could raise dedicated, diligent, but ignorant people into the middle class, they don't anymore.  The important work is simply too complex and too different from the entry-level simple stuff; you can't learn it by degrees with years of experience and regular small raises.  It's all or nothing; make one misstep in life as Maddie did and you're doomed for all time.

In the next article in this series, we'll discuss various suggested solutions to this problem and why they won't work.