The three overlooked words

The headlines blared in the June 8 newspapers around the country — GM to slash 25,000 jobs. The story went was that General Motors, which hemorrhaged money to the tune of $1.1 billion in losses in the first quarter of 2005, would eliminate manufacturing jobs at its U.S. plants, and would close older plants.
By Bob Vavra, Chief Editor July 1, 2005

The headlines blared in the June 8 newspapers around the country — GM to slash 25,000 jobs. The story went was that General Motors, which hemorrhaged money to the tune of $1.1 billion in losses in the first quarter of 2005, would eliminate manufacturing jobs at its U.S. plants, and would close older plants.

This was hardly welcome news for an economy looking to rebound, or for a manufacturing sector which has seen the solid growth of 2004 start to wane. Yet there was some buried in the story — something that didn’t make it to the headlines — that everyone missed as the count begins toward 25,000 jobs.

Quoting from Rick Popely’s story in the Chicago Tribune, “Nearly one in every five GM jobs in the U.S. would go away over the next three years, mainly through attrition.”

Those last three words, “mainly through attrition,” were barely a footnote in the coverage on the topic the next day. It means that while there will be GM workers laid off, the majority of the job cuts will occur when workers leave and those jobs aren’t filled. Perhaps it’s splitting hairs, but that’s not quite the same as putting 25,000 workers on the street over the next three years against their will.

How many will be cut and how many will simply leave? That’s what the next three years will tell us, though the company estimates about 6,000 workers retire or quit each year. How many displaced autoworkers may get scooped up by foreign companies such as Toyota, Hyundai and Nissan, which are expanding U.S manufacturing operations? Another unknown.

One thing we do know — as this month’s cover story notes, manufacturers all over the country are concerned that there will be a severe shortage in skilled manufacturing workers coming within the next five years — mainly through attrition. While American manufacturing is losing skilled jobs in some parts of the country, it also needs skilled workers to fill jobs in other parts of the country. That’s why PLANT ENGINEERING featured the subject this month in print and on our Website.

Programs such as the Dream It. Do It. campaign championed by the National Association of Manufacturers attempt to understand what the manufacturing sectors needs are and how best to address them. One major concern for young people looking to enter manufacturing is that it does not appear to be a stable career choice — especially when you read headlines that include the words ‘slash 25,000 jobs’. Another is the lack of a clear career path for young people. A big concern is the issue of diversity — both in employees and in the types of jobs available in the manufacturing sector.

Manufacturing wants to build its reputation as a sector that values job stability and career growth. Dream It. Do It. is a laudable effort in that direction. Other regional manufacturing hubs — and manufacturers — can’t wait for the program to show up before addressing this issue locally.

The other crucial issue is this: manufacturers face a shortage of skilled workers, even at a time of continuing job cuts. How do we match the displaced workers with the emerging opportunities?