While Americans say they prefer to buy products manufactured in the U.S., they are largely unaware of the robust state of the domestic manufacturing sector, according to a recent Thomas survey.
“’Made In America’ is a label that manufacturers are eager to apply, as consumer sentiment for years has indicated that U.S.-made products tend to be of superior quality,” said Tony Uphoff, Thomas president & CEO. “It was surprising to see that half of the respondents feel that the current state of the manufacturing industry is ‘stable but weak or in decline.’”
In fact, Uphoff said the opposite holds true: “The state of manufacturing is greater than ever—a trend we can expect to continue with innovation, a strong economy and increased national awareness.”
The Institute for Supply Management reports the U.S. manufacturing sector has expanded for 25 consecutive months. The ISM’s leading factory index, the PMI, registered 59.8 percent in September. Any number above 50 indicates the industry is expanding.
As 77 percent of respondents to Thomas’ Manufacturing Perception Report claimed to be somewhat/very familiar with manufacturing and 87 percent stated that a strong manufacturing sector is somewhat/very important to national security, the industry “holds a rather healthy level of significance to those surveyed,” said Uphoff. “That being said, only 50 percent of respondents identified the industry as high-tech; as that number goes higher, the significance of manufacturing to the average American should also see a corresponding increase as well.”
Americans’ perception of the challenges facing manufacturing differ from those cited by the ISM, Thomas, and other research firms. Respondents to the Thomas survey cite robotics and automation as the biggest threat facing American manufacturing. In fact, increasingly advanced electronics will be required for the robotics and automated systems that will dominate the Industry 4.0 factory floor. “Going forward, the capabilities of future automation will make it increasingly viable for electronics to be built in the U.S.,” Uphoff said.
The disparity could be explained by the generational range of Thomas respondents. The largest segment – 34 percent – identified themselves as millennial/Gen Y. About 30 percent were baby boomers.
The biggest challenge facing the industry is the skills gap, Uphoff said. “The work is there, but the skilled labor required to do that work isn’t. The manufacturing industry as a whole needs to work together to continue to influence public perception of the industry, positioning it as the high-tech, safe, solid career path that it has become.”
“The industry needs to partner with the government to increase and improve STEM curriculum, trade/technical training and apprenticeship programs,” Uphoff added. “Together, we need to change the mindset that a four-year degree (and 20 years of paying off student loans) is the only viable path to a fulfilling and rewarding career.”
The good news is that two out of three respondents said they were either somewhat likely or very likely to encourage someone to pursue a career in manufacturing. “We need to push that needle even higher to effectively close the skills gap in the coming years,” Uphoff said.
Other survey findings include:
- Generational divide: Baby boomers (52 percent) and Gen X (50 percent) feel the quality of U.S. products are superior, whereas millennials (47 percent) and Generation Z (43 percent) think the quality of products are typically the same quality.
- National security: 51 percent of respondents say the manufacturing sector is very important to national security. A combined total of 87 percent of respondents think the manufacturing sector is at least of somewhat importance to national security.
- Automation impact: Respondents overwhelmingly chose “manufacturing” as the industry most likely to be affected by automation over the next 10 years. Increasingly advanced electronics will be required for the robotics and automated systems that will dominate the factory floor of Industry 4.0. Going forward, the capabilities of future automation will make it increasingly viable for electronics to be built in the United States.
- Industry to pursue: Two-thirds of respondents say they are very likely/somewhat likely to encourage someone in the workforce to pursue a career in manufacturing. In addition, half of respondents think of the manufacturing industry as high-tech.
“The industry as a whole is seeing an encouraging shift toward re-shoring, as rising labor costs in China and advances in factory-floor automation increase the relative benefits of manufacturing here in the U.S.,” Uphoff concluded.
The online study of more than 1,000 participants used Survey Monkey. Respondents geographically spanned the U.S.; were 18 or older; and represented a range of income and gender.