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As the U.S. economy has been improving, it's gotten some unexpected help. After decades of job cuts, manufacturing firms have been creating jobs, many of them well-paying jobs. One especially bright spot is a new generation of high-tech manufacturers.

NPR's Chris Arnold takes a look ahead at whether this recovery is built to last.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: At a factory called Machine Inc. in Stoughton, Massachusetts, a hulking computer-controlled milling machine is cutting down a block of aluminum. It's shaping it into an intricate aerospace component.

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ARNOLD: Richard Mileika is the company's founder.

RICHARD MILEIKA: Goes in as an aluminum block and finishes up as a completed manifold.

ARNOLD: Oh, wow. So instead of just a block now it's cut down to like all these holes in it in 8 different places.

MILEIKA: Correct, and it channels oxygen for delivery of oxygen on, say, an aircraft.

ARNOLD: The thing you notice right away here there are more machines and robotic arms working away on the factory floor than people. And that's a big part of why this company can exist. To stay competitive with cheaper labor abroad, U.S. manufacturing has gotten more productive. That means more stuff with fewer workers. Actually at lunch and overnight, there are no people at all on the floor, just these machines doing the work.

MILEIKA: And that is our weapon being competitive, whether it's local competitors or global, being flexible and being productive.

ARNOLD: But even as lean and mean as this operation is, Mileika has been buying more machines and hiring more workers. He's expanded his workforce by 30 percent from where it was even back when the recession hit. And he'd like to hire more people, especially if he could find workers with the skills to run this equipment. They're actually in short supply.

MILEIKA: We see growth over the next year. We end up getting opportunities because of other competitors that just aren't keeping up.

ARNOLD: Across the country, since 2010, U.S. manufacturers have added 665,000 jobs. Now some economists say, well, that doesn't mean much. Manufacturing lost nearly seven million jobs in the 30 years before that, so historically this could just be a blip. They expect job losses will soon continue in the long, sad story about the decline of manufacturing jobs in America. But other economists aren't so sure that that's the right way to look at it

BARRY BLUESTONE: I think that's an old story.

ARNOLD: Barry Bluestone is an economist at Northeastern University in Boston. He's been studying the 7,000 manufacturing businesses across the state of Massachusetts.

BLUESTONE: We're seeing a new almost renaissance in manufacturing. Manufacturers are learning new technologies. There are new technologies being developed in all of our major universities for manufacturing.

ARNOLD: Bluestone says he's also seen many companies transform themselves into high-tech competitive operations, whereas they used to make much lower-tech stuff like, say, lawn ornaments.

BLUESTONE: The pink flamingos that were made in Leominster, Massachusetts - the plastics capital of New England - well, that same company is now making medical equipment.

ARNOLD: Now while many higher-tech firms are growing, other less competitive firms are dying, and the government projects manufacturing jobs overall will decline a bit by 2020. At the same time though, a lot of manufacturing workers are older and they're getting ready to retire.

BLUESTONE: There are millions of jobs that are going to open up in manufacturing as the current work-force retires. In fact, many of the manufacturers we talk with - dozens and dozens, hundreds that we've surveyed - tell us the number one issue they worry about is where will the skilled workers come to replace those that are retiring today?

ARNOLD: Enrico Moretti is an economist at UC, Berkeley. He's not as bullish as Bluestone. But he says that manufacturing jobs do tend to pay well and so they have a bigger impact on the economy than many other types of work.

ENRICO MORETTI: So one job in manufacturing ultimately creates 1.6 additional jobs in local services outside the manufacturing sector.

ARNOLD: And those higher tech manufacturing jobs, they have an even bigger effect. And so, Moretti says if those firms continue to grow and hire more workers that should provide a nice boost to the U.S. economy.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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