We should celebrate manufacturing for more than a month

24 Oct 2019

As manufacturing month chugs toward completion, it’s worth a few minutes to consider how important the sector is to our region.

We are sometimes tempted to undervalue the making of things in our service age. The news is dominated by apps and quants and financial instruments. Meanwhile, the number of US manufacturing jobs has declined 4.3 million since the peak year of 1979. That’s the state of Iowa, with Rhode Island thrown in for good measure.

But folks with oil under their nails know that manufacturing output continues to point north. In fact, our neighbors to the north offer a nice comparison: If US manufacturing were a country, it would have a larger economy, at $2.1 trillion, than Canada. Obviously, takt times are tightening.

And 2018 marked a transition of sorts, with manufacturing jobs increasing as a percent of the total workforce for the first time since the middle of the Reagan years. Manufacturing now accounts for 8.5 percent of US employment.

Here in the Iowa Lakes Corridor, more than 11 percent of jobs entail bending, welding, joining, machining, assembling, painting and the like. Plus, the median wage in manufacturing is $18.50 per hour. Only construction crews do better.

Without a doubt, our communities are made healthier by the presence of manufacturing. A few years back, a team of researchers at Iowa State University dug deep into longitudinal data about quality of life from towns across the state. Those places where residents felt life was improving even though the population was getting smaller were said to be “shrinking smart.” A common characteristic of these shrink-smart towns is that they have managed to grow their manufacturing base.

An obvious reason for the benefit is that manufacturing is additive. Customers might be located across the nation or around the globe, but their money winds up here locally.

Plus manufacturers are big spenders. Like a sun warming the planets in in its orbit, their expenditures sustain countless nearby business.

Finally, and this is unquantifiable but absolutely true, manufacturing is good for us because it’s real, tangible, and tactile. When lives are spent at laptops and entire jobs are built on paperless paperwork, there is satisfaction for all of us, both manufacturing workers and the rest of us driving by, in knowing that inside that plant the finished product is a product indeed.