This Is the Way Blue-Collar America Ends

Today, fewer than 40 percent of U.S. manufacturing employees actually work in factories. Our reporter travels to Milwaukee to see what that means for one company and its city.
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The Allen Bradley clock tower in Milwaukee above the global headquarters of Rockwell Automation. (Sophie Quinton)

Sailors on Lake Michigan know they're approaching the south side of Milwaukee when they spot the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower. But the building beneath the tower acts as a marker of another sort: the structure originally built to be a manufacturing plant is now filled with white-collar professionals. As the global headquarters of Rockwell Automation, the Allen-Bradley building provides office space for 3,100 employees who range from product development engineers to sales and marketing teams and corporate executives. They're in the manufacturing business, but it's not quite the same business that once made Milwaukee prosperous.

Rockwell Automation sold over $6 billion worth of industrial control products last year, more than half of those outside the United States and over one-fifth to emerging markets. Some 61 percent of its 22,000 employees are based outside the U.S. While 58 percent of last year's sales were in manufactured devices, 42 percent were in computer hardware, software and communications components.

Take a close look at Rockwell Automation, and you'll understand why the modern manufacturing industry manages to be both a tremendous economic driver and a tough business in which to get a job. It's becoming standard for many manufacturing companies to require employees to have college degrees--and some jobs require a PhD. Factory-floor openings are scarce and often require specific credentials. A company like Rockwell Automation creates wealth and jobs all over the world, which is great for the world--and for shareholders-- but not always so great for Milwaukee. The city's number one economic problem is a lack of middle-income jobs, and no industry has yet emerged to replace the jobs the traditional manufacturing sector used to provide.

Rockwell Automation still has a production facility in the Milwaukee area, at an industrial park in a suburb called Mequon. Here, machines print circuit boards embedded with microprocessors containing software coded by Rockwell developers. The circuit boards are then fitted into variable-speed drives, electric motors built to carry specific loads as efficiently as possible. Workers assembling the drives are as likely to spend their shifts peering at data on a computer screen as they are wielding drills.

While the shop floor employs 350 people, the facility also houses 750 workers whose jobs range from marketing to procurement to engineering. The presence of higher-level expertise makes this facility a hub for service and repair work. "We love it because when we have a problem on the shop floor, I can grab an engineer by the ear," says Thomas Groose, manufacturing engineering manager. Most of the folks working on the shop floor hail from the suburbs. "We're not on a bus line here," Groose notes.

Manufacturing remains an important sector in Milwaukee, employing some 14 percent of the metro area workforce. In Wisconsin, manufacturing accounts for about 18 percent of state GDP and 93 percent of exports, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

But the city and the state have seen a steep decline in manufacturing jobs over the past half-century, and the kind of jobs that remain require a higher level of expertise. Between 1961 and 2001, the city of Milwaukee lost 69 percent of its manufacturing positions. Some of that work relocated to suburbs like Mequon. But overall, the seven counties in southeastern Wisconsin saw a loss of 83,000 jobs, according to Vanderwalle & Associates, a Wisconsin economic strategy firm.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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