Countless talking heads have argued for and against globalization. Some say it’s an unstoppable force, as companies continue their hunt for the company that gives the most bang for their buck. In manufacturing, that often translates to the cheapest labor that can meet or exceed required quality standards. Others have said fuel costs have changed the math behind the global supply chain. As the economy emerges from recession, fuel costs are sure to rise, and once they do, outsourcing certain work to factories across the ocean won’t make as much sense as it once did. Still others argue that lean manufacturing, the new norm, forces the supply chain to react just in time, and it can’t do this if it has to ship large parts across an ocean.
This is all just math, though—measurements of money and time—and I’ve got a feeling that it’s not the real reason that so many are so passionate. I think it’s more about our view of labor. In manufacturing, labor has turned into a bad word. Managers succeed in part by reducing the labor content within the parts they produce. The less labor it takes to make something, the better. (Even the phrase labor content is a bit dehumanizing.)
No wonder manufacturing has trouble attracting skilled workers. What budding skilled tradesperson, one who has a passion for the attributes of hands-on metalworking, would want to join an industry that has given the word labor such a bad name?
That’s why I was glad to talk to Mark Andol, owner of General Welding & Fabricating Inc. After losing work to China, he made a bold move and decided to open his Buffalo, N.Y.-based Made in America retail store, where everything is made from American materials and American labor. He’s serious about it too. Suppliers are required to submit a letter of authenticity stating that everything in a product—plastics, wood, metal, even the electrode used to weld it—is made in the U.S. He and his staff do their own research to validate the information.
He opened the new store to follow a passion that many share: Support your own. To him, American labor is not a bad word; indeed, it’s required for any product he sells in the store. Even the cash registers are made in America.
Andol told me that he would carry only American-made products that make economic sense to sell. Most of his products, such as a $1 kazoo, aren’t ridiculously expensive. In fact, they aren’t much more expensive than competitive products imported from overseas.
The store tackles an untapped market niche, marketing to those who have an interest in buying locally produced goods, but don’t have the time to actually find where those products are sold. Andol and his staff have done the legwork, and now have opened their doors to those who want to support their own.
Opinions vary about the value of the global supply chain. Some say it has brought more pain than benefits; others say the opposite. But no one would argue about the value of a skilled labor force. True, what that labor force needs to know is very different from what it was 50 years ago. Today the best in this industry know the fundamentals of metal fabrication and the value of automation in the right situations.
That kind of labor should always be valued, and never looked upon as something to be reduced or eliminated.