As sluggish as this economic recovery has been, it would be even worse if the manufacturing sector wasn't humming along. The Institute for Supply Management reported this week that its manufacturing index hit 60.8, well above what industry pundits expected. It's also the highest reading for the index since May 2004. Any number over 50 suggests that the manufacturing sector is expanding.
2011 looks to be a great year for manufacturing. Considering the depths from which it has risen, that's great news. It was only in December 2008 when the index was at 33.3, the lowest point since June 1980. That was only a month after fabricators gathered in Las Vegas for FABTECH, and everyone was still in a somewhat optimistic mood. To say that manufacturing activity dropped off a cliff is truly accurate.
The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association's resident economic analyst Chris Kuehl suggested in a recent article that manufacturing is headed in a positive direction for three reasons:
- Manufacturers have become better managers of their businesses. The laser-like focus on operations has been broadened and resulted in more focus on financial management and engineering.
- They have gotten better at sales and marketing. Because word-of-mouth isn't enough anymore, companies are seeking out new customers, even in foreign markets.
- They have adapted to more challenging times with new technology and a more flexible work force.
Those are all valid points. I don't doubt a single one. However, I think the real reason manufacturing is rebounding—actually adding jobs for the first time since 1997—is that this is a tangible industry. Manufacturers make stuff, creatr something of value from simple raw material. Everyone understands what a metal fabricator does when they see the final product, not so much when that same fabricator tries to explain what he or she does.
Actually, my co-worker Tim Heston shared this observation with me a couple of months ago, and it's been in the back of my mind every since. Don Begneaud, owner of BEGNEAUD Manufacturing, Lafayette, La., is a staunch believer in this scenario: "We don't do this for the money. We are in the business of creating value," Begneaud told me more than one time over the years.
Think about the service sector jobs that have yet to bounce back to pre-recession totals. Mortgage clerks, real estate agents, money managers—all involve personal interaction and shuffling paper around. They add some value to the transaction, but those positions don't create something tangible and useful.
Of course, we live in a weird society where the Kardashian sisters are rewarded with fame and fortune for something I've yet to figure out and bankers are back to getting their huge paydays. I just lived through my first blizzard, and all I could think of is how thankful I was that the snow blower was running and the city's snow plows were moving snow. I know that fabricators were behind the creation of that equipment, those plows, and those trucks. For two days they proved their worth and overall value to society. I'm still waiting for Khloe, Kim, Kourtney, and Wall Street bankers to do the same.