By the Blouin News Business staff

The changing face of American manufacturing

by in U.S..

GM Invests In U.S. Factories To Support New Technologies

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Bill Pugliano

The siren song of returning manufacturing jobs to the U.S. was again heard in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. It conjures up images of blue-collar workers on assembly lines. While that is, indeed, the largest single category of American manufacturing workers (but just some 700,000 out of a total manufacturing workforce of 11.5 million, according the the government’s most recent (2011) Occupational Employment Survey) barely 70% of jobs in manufacturing are for production and non-supervisory workers (see chart).

U.S. manufacturing jobs. 1939-date

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Credit: Blouin News Statistics

The fourth largest category of manufacturing workers is inspectors and testers (293,540 according to the OES); the eighth largest is sales reps (213,710) see table below. U.S. manufacturing has always needed non-production staff such as shipping and receiving clerks, customer service reps and vehicle operators. It has also long provided employment to engineers as well as machine operators. But with low-wage, low-skill jobs moved offshore and technology driving the higher productivity that keeps the U.S. the world’s largest manufacturer by value, manufacturers are now in need of an increasing share of skilled and educated labor.

There are more than 31,000 dental lab technicians working in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing. More than 22,000 software developers work in control-instrument manufacturing. Aerospace manufacturers employ another 14,000 software engineers, and offer them then highest average pay outside the computer industry. There are even more than 3,000 fashion designers working in apparel manufacturing.¬†With machines increasingly taking on the drudgery and dangerous tasks in manufacturing, it is the skilled and ancillary jobs that will increasingly occupy manufacturing employment’s numbers.

The overall numbers may not change much, however. The government’s latest long-term forecast for job growth between 2010 and 2020, published in 2012, sees manufacturing employment remaining broadly flat at 11.5 million jobs — and eleven of of the 20 specific industries projected to lose the largest numbers of jobs are in the manufacturing sector. Service jobs, meanwhile, are forecast to increase by 17 million to 130.7 million over that period.

Even if manufacturing employment holds steady over the current decade, that would still be a reversal of the decline from its peak of 19.7 million jobs in 1979. It is never likely to again reach its peak non-wartime share of all employment, 32% in 1953 (it is shy of 9% now).

Yet the value of American manufacturing output is forecast to grow from $5 trillion to $7.5 trillion by 2020, an average annual real growth rate of 2.8%. That would be a further continuation of the remarkable productivity growth American manufacturing has achieved through working brainier not brawnier for the past three decades, and further support for the notion that what will count as a manufacturing job may look much different in 2020 than it does today.

Largest Occupations in Manufacturing
Occupation Employment
Team Assemblers 703,740
First-Line Supervisors of Production and Operating Workers 406,820
Machinists 294,620
Inspectors, Testers, Sorters, Samplers, and Weighers 293,540
Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers, Hand 267,910
Helpers–Production Workers 254,520
Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders 243,320
Sales Representatives, Wholesale and Manufacturing, Except Technical and Scientific Products 213,710
Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers 206,250
Maintenance and Repair Workers, General 196,390
Source: Occupational Employment Survey, May 2011, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics