In 1978 Bruce Springsteen released a song titled "Factory" on his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. The song, based on Springsteen's father's time working at a factory in New Jersey, is a haunting tale of despair that frames life on an assembly line as one of almost relentless bleakness.
Springsteen's "Factory" paints an accurate picture of late seventies grease-stained drudgery.
Unfortunately, that perception still exists. In popular culture, manufacturing and factory work are often still portrayed as a fast track to a sore back and a regretful heart.
That perception is wrong.
A large percentage American manufacturing long ago transitioned to a clean, automation-driven, high-wage, low-employment model. Manufacturers today depend on high-skilled employees who know their way around a robot.
"The vast majority of manufacturers today require a high-level of automation--along with a skilled labor force--just to remain competitive," said Troy Nix, Executive Director of the Indianapolis-based Manufacturers Association of Plastics Processors (MAPP). "Manufacturers in some of the most remote locations in the nation are able to run much of their plant off an iPad or smart phone. Workforce developers recognize how much manufacturing has changed. The general public is still catching up."
The increase in technology has impacted employment. While manufacturers are more productive than ever, the number of manufacturing jobs has not proportionately increased. Between 2010 and 2016, manufacturing output in the United States rose by as much as twenty percent; the number of manufacturing jobs rose by just five percent in the same time.
Simply put, manufacturers are doing more with less by leveraging technology.
But that does not mean manufacturing is a sector that no longer creates decent jobs.
Some of those jobs are just created a different way--including job creation by technology-focused startups that serve the manufacturing sector. N-Gems, a technology startup that assists manufacturers with real-time asset tracking, is one of a growing number of Midwestern startups that serve a manufacturing sector that remains a critically important part of Middle America's regional economy.
"We have initially focused on manufacturers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois," said Michael Kripchak, N-Gems' Head of Strategy & Partnerships. "This region was dependent on manufacturing jobs for decades, and while technology and the economy have changed, we believe manufacturing-focused startups will not only continue to increase American productivity, but eventually re-establish some of the high-paying jobs that have left the Midwest and Great Lakes."
Manufacturing long ago evolved. The dirt, soot, and hopelessness of Springsteen's "Factory" are almost completely gone. So are a lot of the jobs men like Springsteen's father filled.
That does not mean American manufacturing is gone forever or completely lacks good jobs--and the term good job is always relative.
Some of those good jobs at the manufacturers that belong to Mr. Nix's association start at fifteen dollars an hour and put a young employee with a high school diploma and an interest in technology on a path to a middle-class or even upper-middle-class lifestyle.
Some of those good jobs at startups like N-Gems will give young engineering graduates an opportunity to stay in a hometown their older sister had to abandon.
Manufacturing has changed--but all is not lost. The good old days aren't gone forever, and in some ways American manufacturing has been romanticized to the point where the narrative has lost all reality. Life in the grey factories of the seventies was not always all modern pundits say it was.
Ask Bruce Springsteen.
Or better yet, ask his father.