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I grimace when major-newspaper editorialists beat up on manufacturing because of workers leaving, excessive job openings, and an overall decline in jobs. They’re looking at data. What do they know about how manufacturing works? And what do they really know about this major economic machine that produces 10.9% of the gross domestic product (GDP) here in the United States. Let’s go beyond the numbers and look at manufacturing pre- and post-COVID-19.

“The manufacturing workforce is shrinking,” the headline screamed. When we look at the peak of manufacturing (July 1979), there were 19,531,000 employed. As of Dec. 2021, there were 12,580,000 employed in manufacturing. That is clearly a HUGE decline (by the numbers). But what really happened?

This is what happened: a total of five, yes five, economic recessions since 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manufacturing employment declined in each of them. In 2020, COVID-19 curtailed much of our economy, reduced the need for consumer goods (durable and non-durable manufactured goods), and led to manufacturing layoffs, furloughs, and quits.

After those economic recessions, manufacturing kicked into high gear (again) at some of the highest rates in recent history. A 2014 Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) report update may have said it best: “Manufacturing is growing, even when manufacturing jobs are not. What is the explanation? A prime candidate is productivity growth.” This is still true today.

So, how does productivity grow in manufacturing? Manufacturers have learned, after going through multiple recessions and rebounds, that their productivity is about more than improving skills and hiring people. Among other things, manufacturing productivity must flex to suit consumers demands. And as RAM professionals know all too well, productivity is also about new levels of automation. More equipment reliability improvement efforts. And lean initiatives.

This statement in the newspaper article also got my attention: “Manufacturing has weathered the biggest surge in workers quitting, a nearly 60% jump compared with pre-pandemic.”

Employees who “quit” their manufacturing jobs in Nov. 2021 (the latest figures available at this time) was 2.3%. Think about it. Some workplaces were reeling from a COVID-19-response roller-coaster of accommodations. Some workers found more financially rewarding “incentives” where they could work less. Jobs opened in new and expanding manufacturing facilities. Others were fed up with things like masking, vaccinations, overtime work, and long hours. Others may have grown frustrated with new technologies and decided retirement was the next best bet. So, they moved on.

Let’s compare. In the same period (Nov. 2021) when manufacturing quits were 2.3% of the employed workforce, (retail) Trade, Transportation, and Utilities reached 3.6%, Professional and business services reached 3.7%, while Accommodation and Food Services sector reported the highest number of quits at 6.9% of their workforces.

Supply-chain bottlenecks are impacting manufacturing on both ends, I.e., receiving and shipping. When raw materials are not available and workarounds are slim to none, manufacturing slows. Transportation is an issue because of the number of job openings (8.2% of the workforce). That should explain why the industry is aggressively exploring intermodal transportation and self-driving trucking where reliability of equipment will be an emerging issue.

The good news: Manufacturing jobs are still rewarding, and there are plenty of openings to be filled by talented people willing to learn. But let’s not beat up on manufacturing job loss, quits, and high numbers of openings. That’s a continuing post-COVID trend across the board. Let’s do our job and keep manufacturing strong, sustainable, and reliable.TRR

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the “people-side” of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His vast background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, asset management, plant operations, Bureau of Labor Statistics