Making It in America

In the past decade, the flow of goods emerging from U.S. factories has risen by about a third. Factory employment has fallen by roughly the same fraction. The story of Standard Motor Products, a 92-year-old, family-run manufacturer based in Queens, sheds light on both phenomena. It’s a story of hustle, ingenuity, competitive success, and promise for America’s economy. It also illuminates why the jobs crisis will be so difficult to solve.
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Dean Kaufman

I first met Madelyn “Maddie” Parlier in the “clean room” of Standard Motor Products’ fuel-injector assembly line in Greenville, South Carolina. Like everyone else, she was wearing a blue lab coat and a hairnet. She’s so small that she seemed swallowed up by all the protective gear.

Tony Scalzitti, the plant manager, was giving me the grand tour, explaining how bits of metal move through a series of machines to become precision fuel injectors. Maddie, hunched forward and moving quickly from one machine to another, almost bumped into us, then shifted left and darted away. Tony, in passing, said, “She’s new. She’s one of our most promising Level 1s.”

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Later, I sat down with Maddie in a quiet factory office where nobody needs to wear protective gear. Without the hairnet and lab coat, she is a pretty, intense woman, 22 years old, with bright blue eyes that seemed to bore into me as she talked, as fast as she could, about her life. She told me how much she likes her job, because she hates to sit still and there’s always something going on in the factory. She enjoys learning, she said, and she’s learned how to run a lot of the different machines. At one point, she looked around the office and said she’d really like to work there one day, helping to design parts rather than stamping them out. She said she’s noticed that robotic arms and other machines seem to keep replacing people on the factory floor, and she’s worried that this could happen to her. She told me she wants to go back to school—as her parents and grandparents keep telling her to do—but she is a single mother, and she can’t leave her two kids alone at night while she takes classes.

I had come to Greenville to better understand what, exactly, is happening to manufacturing in the United States, and what the future holds for people like Maddie—people who still make physical things for a living and, more broadly, people (as many as 40 million adults in the U.S.) who lack higher education, but are striving for a middle-class life. We do still make things here, even though many people don’t believe me when I tell them that. Depending on which stats you believe, the United States is either the No. 1 or No. 2 manufacturer in the world (China may have surpassed us in the past year or two). Whatever the country’s current rank, its manufacturing output continues to grow strongly; in the past decade alone, output from American factories, adjusted for inflation, has risen by a third.

Yet the success of American manufacturers has come at a cost. Factories have replaced millions of workers with machines. Even if you know the rough outline of this story, looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is still shocking. A historical chart of U.S. manufacturing employment shows steady growth from the end of the Depression until the early 1980s, when the number of jobs drops a little. Then things stay largely flat until about 1999. After that, the numbers simply collapse. In the 10 years ending in 2009, factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs—about 6 million in total—disappeared. About as many people work in manufacturing now as did at the end of the Depression, even though the American population is more than twice as large today.

I came here to find answers to questions that arise from the data. How, exactly, have some American manufacturers continued to survive, and even thrive, as global competition has intensified? What, if anything, should be done to halt the collapse of manufacturing employment? And what does the disappearance of factory work mean for the rest of us?

Across America, many factory floors look radically different than they did 20 years ago: far fewer people, far more high-tech machines, and entirely different demands on the workers who remain. The still-unfolding story of manufacturing’s transformation is, in many respects, that of our economic age. It’s a story with much good news for the nation as a whole. But it’s also one that is decidedly less inclusive than the story of the 20th century, with a less certain role for people like Maddie Parlier, who struggle or are unlucky early in life.

The Life and Times of Maddie Parlier

The Greenville Standard Motor Products plant sits just off I-85, about 100 miles southwest of Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s a sprawling beige one-story building, surrounded by a huge tended lawn. Nearby are dozens of other similarly boxy factory buildings. Neighbors include a big Michelin tire plant, a nutrition-products factory, and, down the road, BMW’s only car plant on American soil. Greenville is at the center of the 20-year-old manufacturing boom that’s still taking place throughout the “New South.” Nearby, I visited a Japanese-owned fiber-optic-material manufacturer, and a company that makes specialized metal parts for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Standard makes and distributes replacement auto parts, known in the industry as “aftermarket” parts. Companies like Standard directly compete with Chinese firms for shelf space in auto-parts retail stores. This competition has intensified the pressure on all parts makers—American, Chinese, European. And of course it means that Maddie is, effectively, competing directly with workers in China who are willing to do similar work for much less money.

When Maddie says something important, something she wants you to really hear, she repeats it. She’ll say it one time in a flat, matter-of-fact voice, and then again with a lot of upstate South Carolina twang.

“I’m a redneck,” she’ll say. “I’m a reeeeeedneck.”

“I’m smart,” she told me the first time we met. “There’s no other way to say it. I am smaaaart. I am.”

Maddie flips back and forth between being a stereotypical redneck and being awfully smart. She will say, openly, that she doesn’t know all that much about the world outside of Easley, South Carolina, where she’s spent her whole life. Since her childhood, she’s seen Easley transform from a quiet country town to a busy suburb of Greenville. (It’s now a largely charmless place, thick with chain restaurants and shopping centers.) Maddie was the third child born to her young mother, Heather. Her father left when Maddie was young, never visited again, and died after he drove drunk into a car carrying a family of four, killing all of them as well.

Until her senior year of high school, Maddie seemed to be headed for the American dream—a college degree and a job with a middle-class wage. She got good grades, and never drank or did drugs or hung out with the bad kids. For the most part, she didn’t hang out with anybody outside her family; she went to school, went home, went to church on Sundays. When she was 17, she met a boy who told her she should make friends with other kids at school. He had an easy way with people and he would take Maddie to Applebee’s and cookouts and other places where the cool kids hung out. He taught her how to fit in, and he told her she was pretty.

Maddie’s senior year started hopefully. She had finished most of her high-school requirements and was taking a few classes at nearby Tri-County Technical College. She planned to go to a four-year college after graduation, major in criminal justice, and become an animal-control officer. Around Christmas, she found out she was pregnant. She did finish school and, she’s proud to say, graduated with honors. “On my graduation, I was six months pregnant,” she says. “Six months.” The father and Maddie didn’t stay together after the birth, and Maddie couldn’t afford to pay for day care while she went to college, so she gave up on school and eventually got the best sort of job available to high-school graduates in the Greenville area: factory work.

If Maddie had been born in upstate South Carolina earlier in the 20th century, her working life would have been far more secure. Her 22 years overlap the final collapse of most of the area’s once-dominant cotton mills and the birth of an advanced manufacturing economy. Hundreds of mills here once spun raw cotton into thread and then wove and knit the thread into clothes and textiles. For about 100 years, right through the 1980s and into the 1990s, mills in the Greenville area had plenty of work for people willing to put in a full day, no matter how little education they had. But around the time Maddie was born, two simultaneous transformations hit these workers. After NAFTA and, later, the opening of China to global trade, mills in Mexico and China were able to produce and ship clothing and textiles at much lower cost, and mill after mill in South Carolina shut down. At the same time, the mills that continued to operate were able to replace their workers with a new generation of nearly autonomous, computer-run machines. (There’s a joke in cotton country that a modern textile mill employs only a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machines.)

Other parts of the textile South have never recovered from these two blows, but upstate South Carolina—thanks to its proximity to I-85, and to foresighted actions by community leaders—attracted manufacturers of products far more complicated than shirts and textiles. These new plants have been a godsend for the local economy, but they have not provided the sort of wide-open job opportunities that the textile mills once did. Some workers, especially those with advanced manufacturing skills, now earn higher wages and have more opportunity, but there are not enough jobs for many others who, like Maddie, don’t have training past high school.

Maddie got her job at Standard through both luck and hard work. She was temping for a local agency and was sent to Standard for a three-day job washing walls in early 2011. “People came up to me and said, ‘You have to hire that girl—she is working so hard,’” Tony Scalzitti, the plant manager, told me. Maddie was hired back and assigned to the fuel-injector clean room, where she continued to impress people by working hard, learning quickly, and displaying a good attitude. But, as we’ll see, this may be about as far as hustle and personality can take her. In fact, they may not be enough even to keep her where she is.

The Transformation of the Factory Floor

To better understand Maddie’s future, it’s helpful, first, to ask: Why is anything made in the United States? Why would any manufacturing company pay American wages when it could hire someone in China or Mexico much more cheaply?

I came to understand this much better when I learned how Standard makes fuel injectors, the part that Maddie works on. Like so many parts of the modern car engine, the fuel injector seems mundane until you sit down with an engineer who can explain how amazing it truly is.

A fuel injector is a bit like a small metal syringe, spraying a tiny, precise mist of gasoline into the engine in time for the spark plug to ignite the gas. The small explosion that results pushes the piston down, turning the crankshaft and propelling the car. Fuel injectors have replaced the carburetor, which, by comparison, sloppily sloshed gasoline around the engine. They became common in the 1980s, helping to solve a difficult engineering problem: how to make cars more efficient (and meet ever-tightening emission standards) without sacrificing power or performance.

To achieve maximum efficiency and power, a car’s computer receives thousands of signals every second from sensors all over the engine and body. Based on the car’s speed, ambient temperature, and a dozen other variables, the computer tells a fuel injector to squirt a precise amount of gasoline (anywhere from one to 100 10,000ths of an ounce) at the instant that the piston is in the right position (and anywhere from 10 to 200 times a second). For this to work, the injector must be perfectly constructed. When squirting gas, the syringe moves forward and back a total distance of 70 microns—about the width of a human hair—and a microscopic imperfection in the metal, or even a speck of dust, will block the movement and disable the injector. The tip of the plunger—a ball that meets a conical housing to create a seal—has to be machined to a tolerance of a quarter micron, or 10 millionths of an inch, about the size of a virus. That precision explains why fuel injectors are likely to be made in the United States for years to come. They require up-to-date technology, strong quality assurance, and highly skilled workers, all of which are easier to find in the United States than in most factories in low-wage countries.

The main factory floor of Standard’s Greenville plant is, at first, overwhelming. It has the feel of a very crowded high-school gym: a big space with high ceilings but not a lot of light, a gray cement floor that’s been around for a long time, and row after row of machines, going back farther than the eye can see, some the size of a washing machine, others as big as a small house. The first two machines, in the first row as you enter, are the newest: the Gildemeister seven-axis turning machines, two large off-white boxes each about the size of a small car turned on its side. Costing just under half a million dollars apiece, they gleam next to all the older machines. Inside each box is a larger, more precise version of the lathe you’d find in any high-school metal shop: a metal rod is spun rapidly while a cutting tool approaches it to cut at an exact angle. A special computer language tells the Gildemeisters how fast to spin and how close to bring the cutting tool to the metal rod.

A few decades ago, “turning machines” like these were operated by hand; a machinist would spin one dial to move the cutting tool large distances and another dial for smaller, more precise positioning. A good machinist didn’t need a lot of book smarts, just a steady, confident hand and lots of experience. Today, the computer moves the cutting tool and the operator needs to know how to talk to the computer.

Luke Hutchins is one of Standard’s newest skilled machinists. He is somewhat shy and talks quietly, but when you listen closely, you realize he’s constantly making wry, self-deprecating observations. He’s 27, skinny in his dark-blue jacket and jeans. When he was in his teens, his parents told him, for reasons he doesn’t remember, that he should become a dentist. He spent a semester and a half studying biology and chemistry in a four-year college and decided it wasn’t for him; he didn’t particularly care for teeth, and he wanted to do something that would earn him money right away. He transferred to Spartanburg Community College hoping to study radiography, like his mother, but that class was full. A friend of a friend told him that you could make more than $30 an hour if you knew how to run factory machines, so he enrolled in the Machine Tool Technology program.

At Spartanburg, he studied math—a lot of math. “I’m very good at math,” he says. “I’m not going to lie to you. I got formulas written down in my head.” He studied algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. “If you know calculus, you definitely can be a machine operator or programmer.” He was quite good at the programming language commonly used in manufacturing machines all over the country, and had a facility for three-dimensional visualization—seeing, in your mind, what’s happening inside the machine—a skill, probably innate, that is required for any great operator. It was a two-year program, but Luke was the only student with no factory experience or vocational school, so he spent two summers taking extra classes to catch up.

After six semesters studying machine tooling, including endless hours cutting metal in the school workshop, Luke, like almost everyone who graduates, got a job at a nearby factory, where he ran machines similar to the Gildemeisters. When Luke got hired at Standard, he had two years of technical schoolwork and five years of on-the-job experience, and it took one more month of training before he could be trusted alone with the Gildemeisters. All of which is to say that running an advanced, computer-controlled machine is extremely hard. Luke now works the weekend night shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

When things are going well, the Gildemeisters largely run themselves, but things don’t always go well. Every five minutes or so, Luke takes a finished part to the testing station—a small table with a dozen sets of calipers and other precision testing tools—to make sure the machine is cutting “on spec,” or matching the requirements of the run. Standard’s rules call for a random part check at least once an hour. “I don’t wait the whole hour before I check another part,” Luke says. “That’s stupid. You could be running scrap for the whole hour.”

Luke says that on a typical shift, he has to adjust the machine about 20 times to keep it on spec. A lot can happen to throw the tolerances off. The most common issue is that the cutting tool gradually wears down. As a result, Luke needs to tell the computer to move the tool a few microns closer, or make some other adjustment. If the operator programs the wrong number, the tool can cut right into the machine itself and destroy equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Luke wants to better understand the properties of cutting tools, he told me, so he can be even more effective. “I’m not one of the geniuses on that. I know a little bit. A lot of people go to school just to learn the properties of tooling.” He also wants to learn more about metallurgy, and he’s especially eager to study industrial electronics. He says he will keep learning for his entire career.

In many ways, Luke personifies the dramatic shift in the U.S. industrial labor market. Before the rise of computer-run machines, factories needed people at every step of production, from the most routine to the most complex. The Gildemeister, for example, automatically performs a series of operations that previously would have required several machines—each with its own operator. It’s relatively easy to train a newcomer to run a simple, single-step machine. Newcomers with no training could start out working the simplest and then gradually learn others. Eventually, with that on-the-job training, some workers could become higher-paid supervisors, overseeing the entire operation. This kind of knowledge could be acquired only on the job; few people went to school to learn how to work in a factory.

Today, the Gildemeisters and their ilk eliminate the need for many of those machines and, therefore, the workers who ran them. Skilled workers now are required only to do what computers can’t do (at least not yet): use their human judgment. This change is evident in the layout of a factory. In the pre-computer age, machines were laid out in long rows, each machine tended constantly by one worker who was considered skilled if he knew the temperament of his one, ornery ward. There was a quality-assurance department, typically in a lab off the factory floor, whose workers occasionally checked to make sure the machinists were doing things right. At Standard, today, as at most U.S. factories, machines are laid out in cells. One skilled operator, like Luke, oversees several machines, performing on-the-spot quality checks and making appropriate adjustments as needed.

The combination of skilled labor and complex machines gives American factories a big advantage in manufacturing not only precision products, but also those that are made in small batches, as is the case with many fuel injectors. Luke can quickly alter the program in a Gildemeister’s computer to switch from making one kind of injector to another. Standard makes injectors and other parts for thousands of different makes and models of car, fabricating and shipping in small batches; Luke sometimes needs to switch the type of product he’s making several times in a shift. Factories in China, by contrast, tend to focus on long runs of single products, with far less frequent changeovers.

It’s no surprise, then, that Standard makes injectors in the U.S. and employs high-skilled workers, like Luke. It seems fairly likely that Luke will have a job for a long time, and will continue to make a decent wage. People with advanced skills like Luke are more important than ever to American manufacturing.

But why does Maddie have a job? In fact, more than half of the workers on the factory floor in Greenville are, like Maddie, classified as unskilled. On average, they make about 10 times as much as their Chinese counterparts. What accounts for that?

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