by Mike Travis
Now, a flurry of newspaper articles, like this one from the Washington Post, point to a potential reversal in that trend. Motorola, Apple, and Lenovo have all announced plans to open new US factories.
The argument goes that declining energy prices, rising wages in East Asia, and new automation technologies are making the United States a cost competitive place to manufacture, and that American companies are at the beginning of the process of moving manufacturing operations back to the US.
I have no idea if that’s true, but if manufacturing begins to return to the US on a large scale, companies are going to have a very difficult time finding the talent to run those new factories. The move to offshore manufacturing over the last decade has drastically depleted the pool of talented manufacturing executives.
Think about it. According to a source quoted by the Post, the US lost about a third of its manufacturing jobs between 2002 and 2009. If you were a bright, ambitious young person looking for a place to make a career during those years, it certainly would not have been in manufacturing. In fact, for my entire lifetime (and I’m starting to get old…) US manufacturing has been in decline.
For those who did manage to land a top manufacturing job, chances are it was not a lot of fun. Most of them spent the last decade consolidating plants and reducing workforce, and moving key operations to East Asia or (perhaps more common for medical device companies) Costa Rica and Mexico. The search for more and more efficiencies has left many very talented manufacturing executives out of work, with poor prospects for finding a job that’s commensurate with their experience.
If manufacturing does return to the US in a big way, it’s going to be great for the country. But we are going to have to develop a lot of talent, fast. If your company is considering returning manufacturing to the US, now is the time to start thinking about these issues.