In the early 1990s, my father managed powertrain manufacturing at a Ford Motor Company plant in Pennsylvania. In those “olden days” (as a millennial I’m qualified to say that), women were utilized for hand assembling circuit boards because they had smaller hands and better “manual dexterity,” perfect for the intricate skills required for this type of work. During the time he managed those plants, machine automation, robots and other advanced manufacturing technologies were adopted globally, making labor intensive manufacturing nearly irrelevant. Soon many U.S. plants that leveraged “human labor” were unable to compete so they closed and manufacturing moved to China and Mexico, where companies benefited from low labor costs.
The manufacturing evolution over the past 25 years has left people behind – particularly those outside of the tech, banking and high-skilled bubbles on both coasts. During the recent Presidential Election, President Trump’s narrative rang true for many working class Americans who lost their Rust Belt auto-manufacturing jobs to global competition. But, President Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing back may only be telling half the story. Modern manufacturing isn’t like the “old days,” it requires fewer workers and different skills.
Instead of trying to bring jobs back from a forgone era, we need our government’s laws and regulations to encourage innovation and reinvention. We need to create new ways of utilizing advanced manufacturing that spurs job growth in new sectors of our economy.
Throughout history, our country has been known for innovation and production. Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized how automobiles were produced. In 1954, George Devil invented the first digitally programmed manufacturing robot arm. Today, 3D printers, data computing and automation have transformed how efficiently we innovate and create. And these modern techniques must be used to discover and excel in new industries, while creating more manufacturing opportunities for working class Americans.
Right now there’s an opportunity to be a global leader in the energy sector, which could mean thousands of new factory jobs for Americans. Government polices have encouraged auto companies to heavily invest in the electric vehicle industry. Ford recently chose to make the U.S. the home for its electric and self-driving manufacturing. With decreasing battery prices, a growing charging network, fast-charging innovations and longer range vehicles, it’s an opportune time to manufacture electric vehicles on American soil. China and other countries abroad see the potential, and with recent predictions indicating that 19 to 21 percent of the transportation market will be electric vehicles by 2035, the U.S. must realize it too.
And, we have reached a tipping point where the benefits of electric vehicles go far beyond ecological. They can compete with traditional gas vehicles on sticker price and hold lower ownership costs due to the reduced costs of electricity and maintenance.
Forging new territory is always uncertain but innovation is the fabric of our economy. The U.S. must adjust and tap into new industries so Americans have an opportunity to be successful in the modern economy. We can look back to learn lessons but don’t need to harken back to try and re-create antiquated jobs.