The new factory worker
NPR’s Adam Davidson recently explored the evolution of factory jobs at Long Island City, NY's Standard Motor Products, and examined how a changing manufacturing workforce has impacted the industry.
At one time, many factory jobs required little to no relevant education or specialized training. However, today’s factories require a staff that is trained in specific skills, such as the ability to run assembly machines run by a computer process known as CNC, reports Davidson.
Davidson spoke with one Standard employee named Ralph Young, whose job requires a strong competency in CNC and the ability to keep other high-tech equipment running. As Young told Davidson, "When I came here 20 years ago, we didn't have CNC equipment…it was more of the hammer and screwdriver fix, to where now it's all finesse."
Davidson notes that this “finesse” is now a critical component of the modern manufacturing job:
"Now it's all finesse" could be the motto of American manufacturing today. In factories around the country, manufacturing is becoming a high-tech, high-precision business. And not everyone has the finesse to run a CNC machine.”
Although jobs like Young’s are crucial to keeping production going, Davidson points out that “It's not all Ralphs who work [at Standard.]”
He spoke with one such employee named Madelyn Parlier, whose job at Standard requires her to operate a machine that doesn’t require any technical skills or CNC competency. In fact, her job could easily be replaced by a robotic arm—an unfortunate reality that both Parlier and the company’s CEO, Larry Sills, must face.
But even though technology exists that could replace human workers at his plant, Sills told Davidson that choosing whether or not to move forward with such “replacements” is not an easy decision to make: “It's gut-wrenching," says Larry Sills, the CEO. "We're not a big Wall Street company. We are a family company. We have a very strong loyalty to our people, and we think they feel the same back. So this is brutal."
Sills says that, unfortunately, this decision is not always made by him:
“"The decision is not made by us," he says. "The decision is made when the consumer walks into Wal-Mart, and there's two products on the shelf and one is made in this country and one is made in China. And the one in China is 50 percent cheaper than the one that's made here, and they choose the one that's made in China."
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