Ever Stepped Inside a Real Factory? Today’s Modern Manufacturing May Surprise You

Most Americans have never seen the inside of an operational manufacturing facility. Despite the sector’s outsize cultural and economic influence, it accounts for just over 10 percent of all U.S. employment, according to figures from the St. Louis Fed. That’s down from well over 25 percent in 1970s.

Long story short: It’s a service economy now.

But that’s not the whole story. Even as manufacturing’s total share of labor force participation declines, the sector remains on the economic cutting edge. Manufacturing is more innovative and technology-driven today than at any point in history. If anything, its cultural and economic influence is poised to increase in the coming years.

How can this be? In large part, it’s thanks to the tireless efforts and boundless creativity of manufacturing leaders and employees. And its impact is felt everywhere one looks, in industry and beyond. If you haven’t been paying attention, this is what you need to know about the state of the American factory.

  1. Manufacturers Can Do More With Less

The decline in manufacturing employment is only partially due to the U.S. economy’s service-based reorientation. Automation is a massive piece of the puzzle, too. Increasingly effective industrial robots and ever more sophisticated design software have removed the human element from many rote fabrication processes — though, as we’ll see, that has created opportunities for humans elsewhere. 

  1. Employees Have Much More Autonomy

For more on this, look to industrial enterprises widely considered innovation drivers in their respective industries. Case in point: President and CEO Todd Leebow and the rest of the Majestic Steel USA team, who’ve bucked the tight labor market with impressive growth since the beginning of the 2010s. Majestic Steel’s secret is a belief that empowered, autonomous associates are better associates.

  1. The Labor Force Is More Skilled

Automation is pushing employees to acquire advanced skills (and formal credentials) that previously weren’t required for most factory work. This is an unambiguous win for employers and workers alike, with the former enjoying unprecedented human capital and the latter benefiting from a bevy of career advancement opportunities.

  1. Some Manufacturers Are Disrupting Their Own Industries

A lot has changed in manufacturing since 1970s. In recent years, the pace of change has undeniably quickened. Forward-thinking manufacturers like Majestic Steel see the writing on the wall, and they’ve diversified accordingly. Leebow and two former Majestic employees recently debuted the first digital marketplace for industrial metals in a clear bet on the industry’s future.

  1. Supply, Demand, and Capital Are Global

The world is more interconnected than it was in the 1970s, when many national markets remained closed and parts of the developed world (such as Europe) had only recently emerged from the post-World War II doldrums. Today, unimaginably complex, transnational systems drive entire industries, with peril and promise for their stakeholders.

What Will the Next 50 Years Hold?

Fifty years is a long time. 

In 2070, children born today will be well into middle age. How will manufacturing look in their day — and what will they have to say about their own grandparents’ factories?

Good things, hopefully. But one thing is certain: the factories of the far future will be very different from the factories of today, just as today’s are very different from those known by generations past. Workers in every manufacturing field must do what they can to prepare.


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