Dispelling the Myths about U.S. Factory Workers

Misconceptions about American factory workers are common because they represent only about 11% of the U.S. workforce. Think they're low paid and all union members? Think again:

The manufacturing sector has changed dramatically in the past two decades, shedding some 7 million jobs since 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, manufacturing now accounts for only 11% of the roughly 135 million-strong U.S. workforce, significantly down from 21% of 99 million employed Americans in 1980. And as a result of lean times, factory workers today are more technologically savvy, competitive and independent.

But despite these changes, misconceptions about U.S. factory workers persist. "Factory workers are not a majority of the workforce," says Rick Guzzo, a principal of Mercer Human Resource Consulting in Washington, D.C., "and because of that there is little opportunity to make those stereotypes change quickly." To probe these misconceptions, the National Association of Manufacturing (NAM), a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, gathered focus groups and conducted several surveys. Here are the stereotypes that NAM observed and the facts that refute them:

Misconception
Factory workers receive low wages.

Fact
Recent reports indicate that the average manufacturing wage is $54,000 a year. That's 18% higher than the average U.S. salary.

Misconception
Factory workers haven't completed high school.

Fact
Roughly 78% of those in manufacturing jobs have attained at least a high school education.

Misconception
You need a vocational education to be a factory worker. And this type of education draws students who don't excel in other areas.

Fact
NAM found that today's manufacturers look for a scope of skills that extends beyond hands-on abilities to math, science and computer proficiency. The need for greater technical know-how started in the tech boom of the 1990s; now, the manufacturing workforce is "pretty lean and mean," says Wade Sayer, director of business education partnerships at NAM's Center for Workforce Success.

Misconception
All or most factory workers belong to a union.

Fact
Unions account for only about 20% of the manufacturing workforce today, compared to 25% five years ago. Moreover, in 22 right-to-work states, factory workers have the option of joining a union or not.

Misconception
Employees in manufacturing—like workers in many other industries—must now shoulder most benefit costs.

Fact
More than 80% of manufacturers still take care of most medical benefits, including dental.

Misconception
The loss of manufacturing employment can be solely attributed to U.S. manufacturers transplanting jobs to overseas locations.

Fact
While the overseas migration of jobs is perhaps the main reason for the loss of U.S. manufacturing work, other factors also come into play, according to recent studies sponsored by NAM. They include the struggling U.S. economy, what NAM views as extremely aggressive global tactics and even a dearth of qualified prospects. In fact, 80% of respondents to a recent NAM poll indicated that they had a hard time finding capable workers to fill positions.

Misconception
Manufacturing work entails manual labor and can put employees at risk for injury.

Fact
While some types of factory work will always involve physical labor, automation and ergonomic consciousness have decreased the need for manual labor and reduced workplace injuries by 40% over the past 10 years.

Source:

Who Works in Your Plant? A Profile of Today's American Factory Worker
Nancy Syverson, Managing Editor
Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operations, November 2003
www.impomag.com/scripts/PRArchivebyIssue.asp?RELTYPE=CS&YEAR=2003&MONTH=11

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