U.S. manufacturing may need to change from blue to white

September 26, 2012

With the national unemployment rate stubbornly hovering around the 8 percent mark, U.S. manufacturing companies looking to increase their workforce should have no real problem in finding applicants. The reality is, however, the depth of the talent pool is remarkably shallow.

The manufacturing industry has traditionally been a blue collar job path. According to Slate, it makes up over 50 percent of all U.S. exports and 66 percent of research and development expenditure, but companies are increasingly finding that basic educational skills are lacking and college graduates would rather work as an accountant than for a company that actually makes stuff.

The problem, apparently, is the public perception of a blue collar worker. Companies with a sound business strategy realize that getting prospective employees to see past the media image of manufacturing as a less than glamorous occupation, can focus on the positives of using STEM education skills.

"There is a shortage of entry-level people who can read basic blueprints; they lack basic math, machine set-up, basic design," said Terri Kaufman, the executive director of the South Central Workforce Investment Board, in a recent interview with Fortune magazine. "Companies are at risk: they cannot find people to do the job, they lose business, and they move out."

The challenge is to find the talent and persuade it that the future of manufacturing may not lie in the blue, but the white collar worker. Companies can map out a manufacturing strategy that encourages the tech-savvy job seeker to be part of the boom in innovative consumer products that are an essential part of the modern middle class.

Being a white collar worker was previously associated with spending time in a office or analysing data, but as manufacturing has become more automated and the work has become more technical, an inquisitive mind is just as useful as the ability to work a production line. Manufacturers have always employed bean-counters, but the move toward a 21st Century vision of workers using the latest technology could be the rebranding initiative that the industry needs.

"The white collar/blue collar division is left over from a time when there was a clear division between the information and management workers and the dumb labor, " wrote Tim Maly in a recent Slate article. "That era has long since passed. Ever had a guy come over to fix your cable? There's a job that most would consider blue-collar, but today your repair person is laden down with countless gadgets and gizmos and more computing power than entire GM management team had in 1965."