Public Policy Forum Blog

Manufacturing work: more automation and fewer jobs

A December 7th article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on the changing nature of manufacturing work: more automation and fewer jobs. This follows a November 21st article also in the Journal Sentinel  which laid out the most currently available employment data from the Bureau of Labor’s Census of Employment and Wages. That article indicated that while the state economy added 23,968 private-sector jobs between June 2012 and June 2013, there was no net gain in the manufacturing sector.  Most recently, the Journal Sentinel on December 19th notes that the state ranks 37th in job growth for the year ending June 2013.

An analysis by the Public Policy Forum of data from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s Economic Futures report further sheds light on the role of manufacturing in the region’s economic health and outlook for employment. During the 2008 – 2011 time period (as reported by WEDC), while output across manufacturing industries posted healthy increases (about 12% growth overall), almost without exception no segment of the manufacturing sector hired workers (employment decreased by 10%). For example, electrical equipment output grew by 37%, while employment shrank by about 1500 workers; and primary metals shed 18% of its workforce while maintaining steady output. 

Our analysis indicates that job growth potential may only exist for those manufacturing-related occupations that set up or repair automated machinery itself.  Bureau of Labor Statistics data, for example, show that demand for machine maintenance engineers is expected to grow 25% between 2010 – 2020, while demand for electronic assemblers will decline by 14%. Of particular note is an expected drop-off by 28% for shipping and receiving clerks caused by new technologies that allow suppliers to remotely measure inventory levels.

While manufacturing remains a major driver in terms of exports that bring in dollars to the regional economy, it’s clear that innovations have changed the landscape to the extent that increased manufacturing output no longer drives job growth. This leads us to ask whether economic and workforce development initiatives that emphasize the manufacturing sector can be a primary strategy for producing the employment opportunities needed to serve southeastern Wisconsin’s future workforce. 

Virginia Carlson