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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Manufacturing jobs today more automated, less physical

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Next month Gene Davis will celebrate his 52nd year working at Major Tool and Machine.

While he’s had a few different jobs, he is currently a deburr technician, or someone who smooths the edges of machine parts. Davis said he stayed at the company for so long because all his co-workers are kind and honest, recognizing hard work when they see it. Major Tool and Machine even gave him a new Cadillac to celebrate 50 years on the job. The car took Davis’ breath away.

“I love my job, and I love the people I work with,” Davis said. “… I have good memories here. It hasn’t been all ice cream and cake, but it hasn’t been all bad either.”

Just as when Davis started his career 52 years ago, manufacturing is a bedrock of the Indiana economy. According to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD), the state has 541,846 manufacturing jobs, equaling 17% of all employment in Indiana. The Indianapolis metropolitan area has over 88,000 manufacturing jobs, equaling 10% of the area’s jobs. 

However, the industry does not look the same as when Davis first started. Advances in technology and labor shortages impact manufacturing in 2019.

Davis said the factory only had two or three machines when he first started. If Davis from 52 years ago could time travel to see Major Tool and Machine in 2019, he might think he was in a sci-fi movie because there are machines involved in nearly all parts of production. There are automatic drills controlled by computer, a bay large enough to hold several cars where a machine cuts steel and computer monitors everywhere. 

Andrew Berger, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said technological progress has always been part of manufacturing, but due to the nation’s low unemployment rate there are more jobs than people, so factories are currently using machines to close that gap.

“Mechanization picked up its pace recently because a lack of workforce availability,” Berger said. “If companies want to grow production, they look to automation to fill gaps where they can’t find workers.”

Berger said experts do not think the technology led to a decrease in jobs. According to the DWD, even though the use of machines for manual labor increased, the number of manufacturing positions in Indiana grew by 100,185 jobs, or 22.69%, from 2009 to 2018. This is because machines still need people to operate, repair and perform updates. 

“What we do here will never be 100% automated,” Kendra O’Brien, vice president of human resources at Major Tool and Machine, said. 

While experts do not think technology is replacing manufacturing workers, it does change what skills employees need to thrive. Berger said there’s less of a demand for physical labor and more for people who know how machines work. Therefore, he said vocational training at institutions such as Ivy Tech Community College is an important part of getting a job in manufacturing. 

“People tend to think of manufacturing as a check-your-brain-at-the-door kind of job,” O’Brien said. “That’s definitely not the way it is here. We need people to understand math and some science. … It is a highly skilled type of work.”

Manufacturing requires new skills, but Berger said due to the labor shortage employers often are willing to teach those skills. For example, Major Tool and Machine has a six-month machinist training program that builds upon lessons from certification courses, teaching blueprint reading, math, safety procedures and how to operate machines. Berger said companies also often offer competitive salaries to encourage people to take these courses and start a career in manufacturing. According to the DWD, the average salary for mechanical engineers and industrial engineers, two common jobs in manufacturing, are both around $75,000.

 “I’ve spoken to many different employers in the last few years, and everybody is looking for a way to fill open positions,” O’Brien said. “… In the younger generation the number of people is simply not there, so how do we try to get people interested in those careers? If the schools are not doing it, then employers will start to fill in some of those gaps.” 

Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.

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