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Auto turmoil casts cloud over factory jobs

The harsh negative reaction to the auto industry's problems highlights a perception issue that plagues the nation's manufacturing sector, according to many workers and executives.
Image: Workers on a General Motors assembly line
General Motors employees work on the Chevy Cobalt on Aug. 21, 2008, at the plant in Lordstown, Ohio. As Big Three auto executives press their case for federal bailout money, some blue-collar workers think manufacturing jobs are getting a bum rap.Ron Schwane / AP file

Ron Maccari, an assembly worker for General Motors for nearly 30 years, has been angry lately over the negative comments he’s heard on TV and read on the Internet about his chosen career.

For weeks, the Big Three U.S. automakers have been on a campaign for a federal bailout, leaving the manufacturing industry as a target of public vitriol.

Lawmakers, economists and business executives have joined in the attack.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., called the U.S.-based auto industry a “dinosaur.” An analysis in The Wall Street Journal titled “Just Say No to Detroit” by economist David Yermack suggested: “We would do better to set this money on fire rather than using it to keep these dying firms on life support.” Media mogul Ted Turner, in an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw, questioned why the country was still trying to “keep alive a smokestack industry of the past.”

Maccari, who works at the Newport, Del., plant that makes GM's Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice, thinks blue-collar work is getting a bum rap.

“If someone is producing something in this country, is making money and has a semi-decent house, we thumb our nose at them,” he said. “I read what they’re saying on blogs: ‘Let the auto industry die.’”

Maccari sees a growing movement in the United States to “disregard manufacturing, to eliminate it.”

Maccari’s not alone in his feelings.

“What killed Detroit was Washington, the government of the United States, politicians, journalists and muckrakers who have long harbored a deep animus against the manufacturing class that ran the smokestack industries that won World War II," conservative pundit Pat Buchanan said in a recent article published on (Buchanan is a msnbc political analyst.)

Today only about 13 million people work in the manufacturing sector, down from nearly 18 million 10 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Despite the decline in jobs, there are expected shortages of skilled production workers in a host of industries. These include everything from aerospace to medical manufacturing to products needed for infrastructure improvements and green industries favored by President-elect Barack Obama, says Patricia Lee, a spokeswoman with the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, a trade group.

A recent survey by the group found that the most serious concern about the sector, behind the cost of raw materials, was availability of skilled labor.

But companies have no plans to hire significantly in the sector, at least for a while.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ manufacturing barometer, which reports on hiring and business in domestic manufacturing, found that only 12 percent of manufacturing executives surveyed in the third quarter were planning to expand their work force over the next 12 months; 40 percent were planning cuts.

Longer term the outlook is less grim. “Manufacturing is not dead,” says Barry Mishtal, industrial manufacturing sector leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers. “It has a great future in the U.S., but now is a difficult time.”

He believes that in years to come U.S. manufacturers will need workers with higher skill levels, unlike the lower-level skills that were needed for many jobs that went overseas.

The FMA’s Lee says that training should include everything from trade school courses in high school to college engineering and science degrees.

But since such jobs are still undervalued by so many Americans, she says, not enough people are interested in the training needed for these jobs.

“It’s an image problem,” said Craig Giffi, chairman of the Global Manufacturing Industry practice for Deloitte, referring to manufacturing work. “It’s perceived as dirty and grimy and hard labor. Manufacturers understand they have an image problem.”

Giffi believes most people don’t understand that manufacturing today generally is a high-tech industry done in facilities with clean floors.

Plus the image of manufacturing jobs has declined as white-collar jobs have gained ascendancy.

“The idea is you go out, develop yourself, educate yourself and basically become a white-collar worker,” explained Mark Clark, associate professor at the Kogod School of Business at American University.

Manufacturing sector jobs have become stigmatized, he argues, as a result of the democratization of education. “We want to send our kids to college, to get computer skills," he says. "That doesn’t seem to coincide with manufacturing.”

But that assessment is unfair, he noted, and blue-collar jobs are getting the short end of the stick. “If we’re too good for manufacturing, then pretty soon everyone is too good to do manufacturing, and that will create difficulties," he says.

Another issue plaguing manufacturing, and the auto industry in particular, is the belief by many that unions aren’t necessary anymore and that they may have contributed to the problems automakers are facing now.

“Ask any consumer not remotely related to manufacturing, and the first thing they talk about is the union,” says Clint Adamkavicius, senior industry analyst for consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Many believe unions have contributed to the high cost of products like cars and few want to bailout a work force they believe is making more money than they think they should.

Most statistics show that unionized workers, especially in manufacturing, tend to make more than their non-union counterparts.

The high wages enjoyed by unionized manufacturing workers, including the United Auto Workers, gave many American workers a path into the middle class they would not have had otherwise, says Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University’s Graduate School of Management.

He says the shortage of manufacturing workers goes beyond perception issues.

“Those shortages won’t be filled unless these jobs are high-paying, provide good employee benefits and give assumptions of continued employment,” he says.

If the U.S. auto industry were to die off because people think workers make too much or they just don’t like the industrial nature of the business, he said, “then maybe we’re saying the United States cannot be a manufacturing country.”

GM assembly worker Maccari hopes that’s not the conclusion Congress or his fellow citizens come to.

He’s eligible to retire in a little over a year and is praying that his longtime employer has a future, not just for himself but for the workers and the for an industry he’s spent his whole life in.

“When you worked with your hands it used to be considered fairly important, an honorable occupation,” he says. “I think it still is.”