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Image: John Keatley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image: John Keatley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Since I conducted research on manufacturing in the US Midwest in the early aughts, I’ve kept in contact with a few of my informants. One of them, Paul D. Ericksen, has 38 years of experience working in procurement and supply management, primarily in two household-name, multinational manufacturing corporations. Ericksen has been writing a blog on Next Generation Supply Management at IndustryWeek since April 2014, and I’ve been keenly following it.

The Ericksen blog is an object lesson in how wide the gulf is between the everyday problems facing manufacturing managers in the real world and the way academics represent management within mainstream management theory. By mainstream management theory, I have in mind the economistic literature based on assumptions that individuals are rational maximizers and markets are inherently efficient (as opposed to the sociological literature, which emphasizes how cultural institutions and power relations in the real world systematically undermine the maximization of efficiency).

Ericksen worked with many hundreds, perhaps thousands of factories that supplied parts and subassemblies to the Fortune 500 companies he worked for. Based on this experience, he highlights a number of ways in which deeply embedded forms of culture and power, in both the multinational corporate brands (prime contractors) and their suppliers (subcontractors), generate and sustain systematic inefficiencies in their organizations. (For academic studies that document and triangulate such outcomes with the views of other informants, see my colleague Josh Whitford’s book on the decentralization of American manufacturing, as well as my own study of routine inefficiency in factories.)

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In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson had a nice article debunking the so-called skills gap in manufacturing. He noted that manufacturers constantly complain about not being able to hire skilled workers – yet they offer starting pay as low as $10 per hour.

One manufacturer Davidson spoke with stated that workers with an associate degree can make $15 per hour in his factory. Yet, as Davidson noted “a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.” The problem is not lack of skilled workers, but that manufacturers are offering wages too low to attract skilled workers.

Some employers are willing to train but even they are facing a deficit in basic math and science skills, which are increasingly important for modern, computer-based manufacturing. Davidson closes by suggesting that “so-called skills gap is really a gap in education, and that affects all of us.”

While it may be true there is a general education deficit in the US, this barely scratches this surface of a deeper problem facing postindustrial economies: what kinds of jobs are replacing formerly-well paying manufacturing jobs as these are outsourced to low-wage countries and lost to advancing technologies?

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The Luddite sees industrial robots everywhere and, fearing negative effects on employment, begins to rage against the machines.

Seeing the same robots, the (liberal) economist exclaims, “What marvelous labor-saving technology. This will maximize productivity, and jobs that are lost in this factory will be replaced with high-tech jobs elsewhere in the economy!”

The Marxist sighs, and responds, “Is this some sort of joke? In the US today, seventeen percent of the American workforce – 27 million individual workers – is unemployed or underemployed.”

 

I imagined this scenario as I read the most recent entry in the New York Times’ consistently excellent series on the iEconomy, which focused on a new generation of robots being deployed in manufacturing.

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