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Economic Impact: Manufacturing sector is changing

The manufacturing sector often gets a bad rap.

After all, who wants to do physical work for a declining industry in a dirty factory for relatively low wages?

Each one of those impressions has a historical root of truth, but times, they are a-changin’.

The manufacturing sector is typically more cyclical than other industries, such as health care and professional business services. That is, it tends to lay off a larger percentage of its workforce during recessions because of reduced demands for goods produced.

This is especially true of industries that produce expensive durable goods, such as cars, refrigerators and furniture, that consumers delay purchasing during downturns for fear that they won’t be able to pay off the credit used to buy the items if they lose their jobs.

Long-term trends show manufacturing employment peaked in the nation at 19.5 million jobs in mid-1979 and hit a low of 11.5 million in early 2010 as the nation recovered from the last recession.

Since then, manufacturers have added 864,000 jobs. Looking to the next 10 years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conservatively estimates that at least 2.8 million positions will open up in manufacturing as workers retire or move on to new occupations.

In Virginia and the Richmond area, manufacturing employment has increased from its post-recession trough.

According to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, expansion announcements in 2014 and 2015 by manufacturing firms eventually will add 12,118 jobs to the state — 3,416 of those jobs are expected in the Richmond area.

Movies such as “Rocky” remind us of hard, labor-intensive work at factories, even though the dirty old factory is from a bygone era.

What was once made from brute labor is now created with programmable robotics and simulation models.

And if you still think factory floors are dirty, look at the images of the Rolls-Royce airplane engine plant in Prince George County. You’ll see clean and sheen flooring with suspended equipment, looking more like a laboratory than a factory floor.

Manufacturing jobs also pay very well.

In the nation, they average an annual $63,154 in the first quarter of 2015, compared with $51,656 for all industries in total. The wage for an average manufacturing job stood at $61,659 in the Richmond area during the same time period compared with $50,082 for all jobs in our region.

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