The Transformation Of American Factory Jobs, In One Company : Planet Money A few decades ago, many workers at Standard Motor were illiterate. Today, they need to learn a computer language to operate the machinery.
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The Transformation Of American Factory Jobs, In One Company

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The Transformation Of American Factory Jobs, In One Company

The Transformation Of American Factory Jobs, In One Company

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With the Republican presidential candidates campaigning in South Carolina, we've been reporting on one town in that state, Greenville, where America's industrial past and future are side by side. What's going on at one company, Standard Motor Products, is emblematic of what's going on in manufacturing as a whole.

As part of a story co-reported with The Atlantic magazine, Adam Davidson, of NPR's Planet Money team, reports on the future of manufacturing as seen through the eyes of workers.

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: Larry Sills runs Standard Motor Products, like his dad did - and so did his grandfather. They make replacement parts for car engines. He grew up with the company, and he has seen the workforce change over the years. A few decades ago, a lot of his workers had no high school diploma. Some of them were even illiterate.

LARRY SILLS: We had a plant in Connecticut. We didn't realize it, but they were illiterate. And then when we switched to the next level, the next generation, we had to be able to read the instructions. To our astonishment, they couldn't do it.

DAVIDSON: But in today's factory, they don't just have to know how to read.

RALPH YOUNG: Here we have a microscope, a hot stand, snap gauges, ID gauges. We use bore mics, go-no-go plugs.

DAVIDSON: That's Ralph Young, the perfect model of the new factory worker. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of metals and microscopes, gauges and plugs. He works on the team that makes fuel injectors, which require precision engineering, performed by an automated machine run by a computer process known as CNC.

YOUNG: When I came here 20 years ago, we didn't have CNC equipment. It was more of the hammer and screwdriver fix, to where now it's all finesse.

DAVIDSON: Now, it's all finesse - that could be the motto of American manufacturing today. And not everyone has the finesse to run a CNC machine. Now, I can read; I've had some computer classes; I have a B.A. But when I asked Ralph's boss, Tony Scalzitti, if he would hire me and train me on the job, if I had enough education and skill, his answer surprised me.

TONY SCALZITTI: No, of course not. The risk of having you being able to come up to speed with training would be a risk I wouldn't be willing to take.

DAVIDSON: What's the risk?

SCALZITTI: Well, like Ralph said, we could train you for six months - and you don't get it.

DAVIDSON: To become like Ralph, I'd have to learn the machine's computer language. I'd have to learn the strengths of various metals, and their resistance to various blades. But then there's something I don't think I'll ever be able to achieve. It's the ability that Ralph and other expert machine operators have, the ability to picture dozens of moving parts in their head. Half the people Tony has trained over the years just never were able to get that skill.

And if you don't get that skill, a mistake on this machine can be catastrophic. All the work that's done here happens on a scale of microns. One micron is four hundred-thousandths of an inch. A human hair, for example, is 70 microns thick. Here, you cannot be off by one-tenth the thickness of a human hair.

YOUNG: A seven or eight micron wrong adjustment in this machine cost us a $25,000 workhead spindle. Two seconds, we could lose $25,000.

DAVIDSON: In two seconds?

YOUNG: In two seconds.

SCALZITTI: That's why I wouldn't hire you.


DAVIDSON: Because you think I'd probably do that, on accident.


DAVIDSON: It's not all Ralphs who work here. There are still remnants of the old, low-skilled assembly line. Madelyn "Maddie Parlier" is more like the old style of worker. She does have a high school diploma, but no further education. And she works on a simple machine that seals the cap of a fuel injector onto the body. All she does is insert two parts, and push a button. It requires no discretion, no judgment, no special knowledge. There's only one way to run it: the right way.

How long does it take to learn this?

MADELYN PARKER: Yeah, it takes like, not even five minutes.


PARKER: Because it does it for you. All you do is just put the piece in, push the clamps down, and push your finger.

DAVIDSON: There are a lot of things Ralph knows that Maddie wishes she knew. She wants to know how many microns thick the different parts are. She wants to know the computer language used on the machine she runs. She wants to know all the things that make Ralph's job prospects so much brighter than her own. And until she knows those things, her future is just not going to be certain at all.

Maddie has a job, I learned, because of some simple math. A machine could easily replace her - a robotic arm could put the parts in and take them out - but it would cost around $100,000. Maddie makes a lot less than that and for now, the math is in her favor.

Now, let's say the price of a robotic arm goes down, or a factory in China learns how to make these parts for a lot less. Then, Maddie's job would be at risk. Simple calculations like that have cost around 5 million factory workers their jobs over the past decade.

Just because the calculation is simple, doesn't mean the decision to lay off workers is easy. Larry Sills, CEO of Standard Motor Products.

SILLS: It's gut-wrenching. And we try – because we are a family company; we're not a big Wall Street type. We are a family company. We have a very strong loyalty to our people, and we think they feel the same back. So this is brutal.

DAVIDSON: So if the decision is so brutal, why does he do it in the first place? Why not just keep those workers on?

SILLS: The decision is not made by us. The decision is made when the consumer walks into Wal-Mart, and there's two products on the shelf. And one is made in this country, and one of them is made in China. And the one in China is 50 percent cheaper than the one that's made here, and they choose the one that's made in China. That's when the decision is made.

DAVIDSON: This is why Standard Motor Products has outsourced parts, like electric relays or air-conditioning compressors, to factories in low-wage countries. Maddie knows all this. She knows she's not living in the old days. She worries about the technology, or the low-wage worker abroad that could replace her. She knows that unless she learns some of the things that Ralph knows, she probably won't have a job this good for long. But she's a single mom with two kids.

PARKER: I want to go back to school, but it's the time. If I want to go back, I have to go back on my time, and I don't have time. You know, when I get off work, I go pick my kids up - and that's it. My life revolves around my children.

DAVIDSON: What do you think education – like if you don't get education, let's just say for whatever reason, you just never go back to school – what do you think that means for your future?

PARKER: I'm always going to be where I am - I mean, to be honest.

DAVIDSON: The sad thing is, she'll only be where she is now if she's lucky. This is the true challenge of American manufacturing – of the American economy, overall. How do we get the Maddies to become like the Ralphs?

In the old days, Maddie would learn on the job. That's what Ralph did. He didn't have to pick between paying his bills and having a future.

But now, the gap between the skilled and the unskilled is so vast that often, the only way to make the leap is by leaving work and getting some education. And that's just not financially feasible for a lot of Americans.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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