The Hottest Product In Manufacturing: Jobs

Job growth was better than expected in April, and one area where hiring continues to be surprisingly strong is manufacturing. Small- to medium-sized manufacturers around the country are taking advantage of a weaker dollar and demand for precision parts to increase their exports and add new jobs. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

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SIMON: And as we just heard, some of the good news from the week is that job creations been on the rise. NPRs Chris Arnold reports that one particular bright spot for job growth is manufacturing. Hes been visiting small manufacturers in New England and has this report.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Its easy to think of U.S. manufacturing as a dying industry, but its not. The U.S. is one of the top exporters in the world. U.S. manufacturing has been suffering when it comes to jobs. Theres been a decline in jobs for decades and thats because computers and robots do more of the work now. But coming out of this recession, U.S. manufacturers are hiring on more workers again. This latest jobs report showed a gain 29,000 new manufacturing jobs.

Mr. STEVE TAMASI (CEO OF Boston Centerless, Inc.): Weve hired nine people since January 1st.

ARNOLD: Steve Tamasi is the CEO of Boston Centerless in Woburn, Massachusetts. The company does whats called centerless grinding of metal. Tomasi walks over to one machine thats shaping steel rods that will go into fuel injectors for cars. The rods, he says, have to be perfectly round, down to a tiny margin of error.

Mr. TAMASI: Approximately, 1-100th of a human hair. That ultimately controls the amount of emissions that go into the air.

ARNOLD: A lot of people say that this is the future of American manufacturing, making up super precise products with well-trained workers. Basically, its stuff that cant be made as well for less money in places like China. And, in fact, companies like this one, over the past few years have started selling more products to China and lots of other countries. The weaker U.S. dollar is helping with that.

Mr. TAMASI: Once we get in a country, people talk and say, hey, listen. I was able to buy this product at this company in Woburn, Massachusetts, that works fantastic. We sell to companies in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Israel, Ireland, England...

ARNOLD: Another machine here is cranking out steel rods to be used for foot-long surgical drill bits for knee surgery. The medical device market is a big one for U.S. manufacturers and U.S. companies right now are ramping up production on all kinds of surprising and innovative products.

Mr. TOMASI: This is a new design of a bullet that is environmentally friendly. Its a lead-free bullet.

ARNOLD: Tomasi walks over to a wooden box thats full of metal bars thatll be made into these new kinds of bullets.

Mr. TOMASI: Of the 750 million or so bullets that get produced every year, two-thirds of those bullets are shot on a range or ranges around the U.S. and theyve had issues with those bullets ending up in the fields and contaminating the soil.

ARNOLD: Because of the lead, you mean.

Mr. TOMASI: Because of the lead that was in the bullet, exactly.

ARNOLD: All over the country, there are companies like this, with names that youve never heard of, employing a hundred here, 75 people there, making high-precision manufactured goods. Kathryn Shaw is an economics professor at Stanford University.

Professor KATHRYN SHAW (Economics, Stanford University): Theres buildings on the highway. Theyre just sort of blah looking buildings. You have no idea whats taking place inside them. You know, the name of the company means nothing. Theres a lot going on there and theres a lot of them.

ARNOLD: Actually, many companies say that theyd be hiring more people if they could get better-educated job applicants, but they complain that most high schools and colleges dont appreciate the opportunities in manufacturing.

Prof. SHAW: People are just underestimating the possibilities.

ARNOLD: President Obama spoke to this yesterday after the latest job support came out. He visited an auto parts factory in Indiana.

President BARACK OBAMA: Were going to have a lot of jobs in the service sector because were a mature economy. But Americas economy is always going to rely on outstanding manufacturing - where we make stuff, where were not just buying stuff overseas, but were making stuff here and were selling it to somebody else.

ARNOLD: And at least some economists think that were actually at an inflection point for U.S. manufacturing right now. After decades of job losses at big factories, they say a newer breed of smaller high-tech manufacturers are well positioned to sell more products around the world and hire more workers. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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