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Consider Greatbatch Inc., which makes orthopedics and other medical goods. The company is expanding its manufacturing operations near Fort Wayne, Indiana. Greatbatch wanted to take advantage of a specialized work force in northeastern Indiana, a hub of medical research and manufacturing.|
"When you're talking about medical devices, failure is not an option," CEO Thomas Hook says. "It's a zero-mistake environment. These products are customized and hightech. They go into patients to keep them alive."
Hook says the United States offers advantages over poorer, low-wage countries: reliable supplies of electricity and water, decent roads. And some localities support businesses by providing infrastructure and vocational training for potential hires.
Centerline Machining & Grinding in Hobart, Wisconsin, which makes custom parts for manufacturers in the paper industry, plans to add to its staff of 26. But it's struggling to find the skilled tradesmen it needs for jobs paying $18 to $25 an hour.
CEO Sara Dietzen laments that local vocational schools cut back training courses in recent years, having concluded that the future for manufacturing was dim. Not from her view it isn't. For her company, output is all about speed.
"Our average customer wants a turnaround in less than three weeks," Dietzen says. "You're not going to get that in China."
Still, economist Cliff Waldman of the industry research group Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI doubts that U.S. factories will continue to expand their payrolls in the long run. Manufacturing, he says, is "not a job creator for the U.S., basically."
Global competition will always force factory managers to try to replace expensive workers with machines or with low-wage labor overseas, Waldman says.
Mark Perry, a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, likens the loss of manufacturing jobs to the exodus of workers from farms between the 19th and 20th centuries. If that migration hadn't happened, Perry says, "we'd still have millions of people working in agriculture. Now, we can employ fewer people in factories."