Thomas Friedman says the world is flat, and getting flatter, and many people are blaming this globalization for the demise of manufacturing in the U.S. But David Brooks, in a recent column in the New York Times, makes the case that it’s not globalization that is reshaping manufacturing but rather technology, albeit accelerated by competition among countries. Brooks calls this the “cognitive age” and the “skills revolution”. Brooks argues that we can’t blame loss of jobs and decline in prosperity on globalization; the real culprit is technology. He reports that, contrary to popular wisdom fueled by current political rhetoric, manufacturing output in the U.S. is increasing. It’s just that it takes fewer workers to produce cars, appliances, furniture, construction equipment, etc. Brooks writes:

The central process driving this is not globalization. It’s the skills revolution. We’re moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information. This is happening in localized and globalized sectors, and it would be happening even if you tore up every free trade deal ever inked.

Living in the Detroit Metropolitan Region, I read the obituaries about manufacturing every day. But I also know from my role as trustee of a community college, that skilled, technology-savvy, motivated workers are in tremendous demand in the manufacturing sector in Michigan. And these are not Wal-Mart wage jobs. These are high-paying, full-time jobs in everything from large automobile manufacturers to small start-up companies. We can’t keep our students who are studying to be welders, auto technicians, and robotics operators because they are lured away by companies as soon as they have a few courses.

A great example of what Brooks is talking about is the GEMA plant (an alliance of Chrysler, Mitsubishi, and Hyundai) in Dundee, Michigan. Using advanced manufacturing methods, this plant is producing more engines, at higher quality, with approximately 15% of the workforce than the traditional manufacturing plants of the Big Three. These advanced manufacturing methods (Lean, CNC, flexible work rules, etc.) require that employees have a level of knowledge and skill and a way of thinking that was not needed in the old style plants. The GEMA plant requires a minimum of two years of college for all of its employees.

Yes, manufacturing is being affected by globalization, but it is also being dramatically affected by rapidly changing technology and how that technology is applied to the workplace. For the sector to continue to grow and be competitive, we need to prepare workers for a workplace in which they have to be smart. This starts with K-12 preparation for college, continues with successful learning in college (at least a certificate or associates degree), and doesn’t stop as successful workers must keep on learning throughout their careers.

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