Jack Schron has shaken hands with a lot of politicians.
His factory in Cleveland is campaign-backdrop gold: a midsized, family-owned, high-tech facility, built on a reclaimed brownfield site. And because Schron is a Republican member of the Cuyahoga County Council, his factory floor has already borne the footprints of at least one GOP presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich.
“There are some things that come up every four years,” Schron says. One is the Olympics. Another is “politicians waking up and saying, ‘We gotta stop losing the good jobs in manufacturing.’ ”
The difference this year, he said, is that the Democrats are talking about manufacturing too. From his budget to his travel schedule, President Obama has left no doubt that a pitch to blue-collar workers and a promise to rebuild the country’s manufacturing base will be a crucial part of his reelection campaign.
But a closer look at Schron's company, Jergens, and the state of modern American manufacturing reveals that Obama’s pitch is not without peril. The president’s policies reflect a new economic reality: Manufacturing may be a blue-collar touchstone, but jobs in American manufacturing in the 21st century increasingly require white-collar credentials.
Jergens makes standard components such as clamps, fasteners, and lifting equipment. A lot has changed since Schron’s father and grandfather founded the company in 1942: Processes are more high-tech, customers are more international, and workers are increasingly required to bring more skills to the factory floor.
“We don’t even call our operating floor a factory, just to set the tone,” Schron said. Instead, a sign welcomes employees to the "Technology Distribution Center."
Employees operate lasers, robotics, and computer numeric-control tools, Schron said. They calibrate measurements to one ten-thousandth of an inch. Working on Jergens's factory floor, Schron said, can feel like working on the starship Enterprise.
Technology and globalization have changed how Jergens products are made and where they're sold, Schron said. But most important, he said, “the thinking process has changed.” There are no more siloes between physical labor and white-collar work -- everyone, from the factory floor to the sales office, is expected to talk the same language.
Backing manufacturing has traditionally helped politicians woo Rust Belt voters, labor unions, and laid-off factory workers who want a return to America’s manufacturing heyday. The president leans on some of that populist language in his statements, making sure to emphasize the need to restore a sense of security to middle-class Americans and struggling towns.
“Manufacturing has just changed drastically over the past 10 years. It’s no longer the nation’s antipoverty program. Low-value, low-skilled jobs are pretty much gone from the industry,” said Edward W. Hill, dean of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. “There is a much higher share of white-collar and high-skilled labor, and much lower share of blue-collar labor.”
While there are many well-paying manufacturing jobs available that don’t require a four-year college degree, or a strong background in science, math, or engineering, employers are increasingly asking for a higher set of skills, experts and economists say. And despite the recent uptick in hiring, the long-term trend in American manufacturing is toward more productivity and fewer jobs, meaning that the overall size of the workforce is likely to keep shrinking. The old days — when a factory employed an entire town — aren’t coming back any time soon.
Even jobs on the shop floor will increasingly require an industry certification, an associate’s degree, or some sort of community-college training, said Gardner Carrick, senior director of strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute.
“It’s sort of redefining what the middle-class job is," Carrick said. "You’re going to make a very good wage, but you’re going to need a higher skill set.”
Employees increasingly must be able to work in teams and be fully computer-literate. They need to be able to deal with complex pieces of machinery, and in many cases they need to be able to operate with less oversight from a supervisor than in the past, experts say.
“Someone who has been laid off during this recession will need some degree of retraining or retooling,” Hill said. As for new hires coming in to succeed an aging workforce, “the person coming in is not going to have the skill set that the person coming out had when they were hired,” Hill said.
Heading into his reelection campaign, Obama has repeatedly linked the need to rebuild the country’s manufacturing base to a revival of the hard-hit middle class. “We know that we've got to rebuild a middle class, and a lot of that is going to have to do with how well we do in manufacturing and how well we do in those jobs that are related to making products here in the United States of America,” he said in a speech last year at Northern Virginia Community College.