Domestic demand for products and the availability of highly skilled workers could push a resurgence in homegrown manufacturing, say leaders of three local corporations and a pair of independent filmmakers who visited Charlotte Friday.
On a nationwide tour promoting their new documentary on the impact U.S. manufacturing, “American Made Movie,” directors Nathan McGill and Vincent Vittorio said they’ve been surprised at how much manufacturing is still going on in the country.
“I think everyone all together believes in our country,” Vittorio said. “And when you pull all the politics out, you find everyone agreeing it’s important to make things in this country.”
The reputation of U.S. manufacturing has been in decline for decades, capped by the recent bankruptcy of Detroit – a major American city built around the auto industry. Among the reasons for the decline: low-wage overseas workers, more efficient technology and robotics taking the place of the workers.
The number of manufacturing jobs in North Carolina is only 62 percent of what it was in 2001, according to a February report by the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center.
But manufacturing jobs have been on the rise since 2011, and the state is still the nation’s fourth-largest manufacturing economy. Employing around 440,000 North Carolinians, manufacturing accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s jobs and 20 percent of its gross domestic product.
“There’s so many people working in manufacturing today,” McGill said. “I think that we need a stronger, more developed workforce to help fill some of the jobs that we have. We’ve got to increase demand from the consumer for American-made products so the corporations will listen, politicians will listen.”
Echoing McGill and Vittorio, local manufacturing leaders say they concentrate their operations where there’s a demand for their products. And they’re focused on training current and future laborers who will drive the modern industry.
At a panel discussion Friday accompanying a screening of “American Made Movie,” leaders from Charlotte companies Barnhardt Manufacturing Co., Bosch Rexroth Corp. and Snyder’s-Lance explained the importance of two-way relationships between companies and communities when it comes to the success of local manufacturing.
“I think manufacturing has been received in the U.S. now as a declining industry, there’s no future in it,” said Tom Barnhardt, president and CEO of Charlotte-based cotton supplier Barnhardt Manufacturing. “But as we will see a resurgence in manufacturing, we have to improve the image and get people back into the workforce that are skilled, that are competent.”
One challenge for these companies has been training current workers to keep up with advancing technologies. But an equally important challenge, they say, is attracting the incoming wave of workers to manufacturing.
There is a lack of young workers with the skills to run machines, said Mark Rohlinger, a technical plant manager for the German-based manufacturing and engineering company Bosch Rexroth, which has operations in Charlotte. The solution, he said, is to make potential workers aware of the kinds of skilled positions that are available, and offer the necessary education and training.
“We need to work with the local high schools, middle schools and elementary schools, because there’s no visibility to them about the types of things our company needs as far as a skilled labor force,” Rohlinger said.
There is hope for the future success of domestic manufacturing, McGill said. Noting the recent emergence of the organic food market, he said the American consumer base has the power to push for homegrown manufacturing products as well. “Demand did that,” he said, “so it can do it again.”
“At the end of the day, the most hopeful thing is that there’s something with this issue that we can all do beyond just complain,” McGill said. “We can use our dollar as the voting ballot, and we can actually influence the way that industry is working and that our politicians are working to create more jobs.”
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