Leland Teschler's Editorial: Climbing a Ladder of Manufacturing Jobs

May 6, 2009
It’s always interesting to review the results of our annual engineering salary survey. We showcased the highlights in our last issue, but this year some of the most-noteworthy findings

It’s always interesting to review the results of our annual engineering salary survey. We showcased the highlights in our last issue, but this year some of the most-noteworthy findings only emerged as we combed through the data to update our online engineering-salary calculator.

The statistic that sprang out at us was the relatively high salaries reported by workers who are normally thought to be on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In several parts of the country, engineering related workers who had only an associate’s degree or just a high-school diploma reported earning $50,000 annually and higher, plus benefits. Such compensation doesn’t seem half bad for laborers having no more than two years of formal training past grade 12. And we should point out that, in this era of low-wage/low-skill service-industry jobs, this is income earned without hustling for tips.

The survey results reminded us how jobs in manufacturing can benefit the economy, and particularly how they can benefit minorities. Manufacturing jobs have long been a way for those with perseverance and good work habits to enter the middle class. Unfortunately, econometric research has also found that employment rates for African- American males have mirrored declines in manufacturing employment, particularly in the 1980s when deindustrialization was really gathering steam.

Our survey results likewise seem to validate the findings of Katherine Newman, a sociologist who wrote a book called Chutes and Ladders – Navigating the low-wage labor market. In Ladders, Newman tracked down workers she’d interviewed a decade before when they were toiling for minimum wage in a Harlem fast-food joint. She wanted to see what, if any, economic progress those people had made in the decade of the 1990s.

It turns out that over 25% of them had migrated into the middle class despite having few prospects and little or no education past high school. And one means of getting into better-paying jobs was by finding work in manufacturing.

That was the case for one of Newman’s profiled employees named Jamal, who wound up in the lumber industry. He landed an entry-level position at a laminating factory and showed managers he was a fast learner. Fortunately for Jamal, the lumber business is like many others in manufacturing: People who show they can handle a task competently tend to get ahead regardless of their educational credentials. Eventually, Jamal’s can-do attitude and grit let him move from a graveyard shift to a day job, and finally, to a spot as an assembly crew chief.

Those in Newman’s study who gravitated toward retail sales and other service industries had a much more hit-or-miss record of economic success. Low pay and little chance for advancement was the norm. Sometimes even training didn’t help these people. Educational programs for a number of service-sector jobs prepared students for occupations which were so poorly paid that there was no real advantage to earning the credentials.

All this is one more reminder why growth in the middle class, or the lack of it, may greatly depend on whether we can nurture our manufacturing industries.

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