Putting Americans Back to Work

In its "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing this country in the new decade.

For many high school students thinking of a promising career this would be a field trip to avoid. A visit on a cold day to a noisy, drafty building to watch steelworkers cut, drill and weld.

But the kids from Benson Polytechnic High Schoolin Portland, Oregon are getting a sales pitch from Drew Park, the president of CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports by the time the tour is over, some of the students are seeing their future."It's amazing, the skill they have to make sure that the weld is just right," said Jeff Walberg, a student. Another student Corey Elliott added: "I like working with tools. I like working with my hands. It makes me feel nice and fuzzy inside."But is there a future working with your hands in America, or is that in the past? Tell Us What You Think Send us an e-mail.Our report card shows that in the 21st century, America has largely stopped making things. In the year 2000, more than 17 million Americans were employed in manufacturing. By last year, that had dropped to fewer than 12 million. Bureau of Labor StatisticsThe same steep loss is seen across most industries. In 2000, more than 1.3 million Americans built automobiles. In 2009, fewer than 674,000 were left in an industry that has continued shrinking.Ten years ago nearly 700,000 Americans were employed making furniture. By 2009 that had dropped to 390,000. In the same period the number of Americans making clothing has dropped by almost two thirds, from 483,500 to 168,300. Those making shoes and other leather products is down by more than half - from 68,800 to 30,900. And it's not just old line work. Even jobs making computers have been disappearing - down from nearly 2 million jobs ten years ago to just over a million in 2009.The Problem The problem is that those disappearing jobs are going to countries where workers are paid far less. In China, where health and safety rules are few and millions are looking for work, the average manufacturing worker earns just $134 each month - compared to almost $2,400 a month in the United States. WorldSalaries.org But the problem is more than just the loss of manufacturing jobs to low wage countries. Steelworker Brandon Nelson, says we have lost respect for the kind of work that once provided prosperity. "It seems like nobody wants to do this work," Nelson said. "They want to be in an office, or work in front of a computer instead of building things."Some argue that it doesn't matter whether the factory floor is here in the United States or somewhere overseas. If Americans are being paid for doing the designing, engineering and marketing, where a product is actually made - is of little consequence. CBS Reports: Where America StandsTake the huge success of Apple's iPod -- 250 million of them have been made in Chinese factories. But the design and the programming are done in America which takes the biggest share of the profit.

Those high value jobs however could be the next to go to places like China and Taiwan says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California Berkeley.

"The countries where manufacturing is taking place by leaps and bounds today have their eye on that research and development," Shaiken said. "That's what they're going for."

Just look at what's happened to cell phones. An American company, Motorola, developed the first portable cell phone the DynaTAC 8000Xin 1983.

In 2009, nearly 1.2 Billion cell phones were sold around the world -- but not one was manufactured in the United States. Last year Motorola held just 3.6% of the world cell phone market.

The Solution

The solution begins by questioning the conventional wisdom that America can thrive without manufacturing.

"That idea is just flat wrong," said Jeffrey Immelt,Chairman of General Electric Company.

Immelt announced plans for a $100 million research center in Michigan creating 1,200 jobs. While General Electric has moved tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs overseas in recent years, Immelt says it's time for American companies to rethink outsourcing.

"That's is just not sustainable," Immelt said. "It's not a business strategy."

To overcome the cost differences with low wage countries American businesses can be competitive by investing in technology, training and new manufacturing methods to raise productivity.

"Labor costs are very important in any manufacturing economy," Shaiken said. "But what's critical is labor costs combined with innovation, high productivity, and quality."

Drew Park credits exactly that: innovation, productivity and quality for keeping his business - producing custom steel products - competitive internationally. And allowing him to pay his workers up to $60,000 a year. But to stay competitive he needs more skilled workers.

"Our workforce is aging and we're having a hard time getting the younger generation involved," Park said.

Portland Workforce Alliance

Park works with Portland's Benson High to encourage kids who like making things. At Benson, one of the rare schools that still runs a big shop program, teacher Tim Hryciw says there's no shame in wanting to work with your hands.

"Not everybody can sit in an office and just work behind a computer," Hryciw said. "Doesn't work that way. Not everybody wants to. I surely didn't."

For America to rebuild its greatness in manufacturing perhaps it's time for the whole country to take a lesson from the students at Benson High where they learn that working with your hands, making things, is not only honorable - it's essential.

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  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.