Manufacturing Essential to Region’s Diversified Economy

Hosting two of the world’s most modern auto assembly plants and a sprawling network of industry suppliers, Lansing’s reputation as a manufacturing center is often overstated.

Manufacturing directly accounts for just 21,000 of the region’s 235,000 jobs, although it supports other job sectors like trade and transportation, information technology and even leisure and hospitality. Ultimately, what drives Lansing’s economy is 100,000 jobs tied to government and education, notably Michigan State University.

But the region’s manufacturing sector is essential to a diversified economy. It provides entry level jobs, work for skilled trades, experienced journeymen, technicians and college trained professionals.

Within the overall manufacturing economy, pure production jobs, as defined by the federal government, accounted for more than 17,000 jobs in the greater Lansing region. A U.S. government survey in 2015 put the mean average wage at $38,400 and found that production jobs, as a share of the local workforce, exceed the national average by about 25 percent.

This doesn’t surprise Chuck Hadden, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA).

“Manufacturing is the largest sector of Michigan’s economy,” Hadden said. “The next two, farming and tourism put together, do not have as big an economic impact as manufacturing.”

He added that looking solely at production and manufacturing jobs understates theeconomic value.

“A good manufacturing job, something in an auto-related business, can supply five more jobs,” Hadden said.

What challenges manufacturers is a shortage of skilled labor and misconceptions about their operations. The MMA cites an industry-sponsored survey to illustrate the difficulty luring young workers into manufacturing and production jobs.

While it found that 90 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed considered manufacturing as “important or very important — the highest of all sectors,” only 43 percent viewed manufacturing as a secure and stable career option and just 35 percent of those surveyed said they would encourage their children to pursue manufacturing careers.

“People are still thinking that [manufacturing facilities] are a dirty place to work, that workers do the same thing over and over again. They’re not. Michigan needs to embrace manufacturing,” Hadden said.

Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides a detailed look at 40 Lansing area production related skills as diverse as chemical equipment operators, bakers, printing press operators, welders and machinists.

It identified power plant operators who control, operate or maintain machinery to generate electricity as having the highest mean annual wage — $66,970, as compared to the national average of $71,070. Operators are a select group, with just 90 jobs in the region.

Stationary engineers, who operate or maintain stationary engines, boilers or other mechanical equipment to provide utilities for buildings or industrial processes, have the second highest annual wage, according to the BLS — $64,440, higher than the national average of $60,480. As with power plant operators and stationary engineers – just 40 in the region — represent a small slice of the production workforce.

At the low end of the production pay scale are laundry and dry cleaning workers whose mean annual income is $22,750, a shade above the national average of $22,660. Other jobs at the low end are production helpers ($24,280 annually) and bakers ($25,080).

The single largest category of production workers is team assemblers, many of them employed at GM’s auto assembly plants. There were 6,440 jobs in this classification, with an annual mean wage of $39,340. The region’s second largest cohort, and among the highest paid at $48,700 annually, is machinists. There are 1,400 employed in the region and manufacturers struggle to fill positions.

Also, thanks to the auto industry, the Lansing region has a disproportional share of its workforce engaged as assemblers. The federal government measures job concentration in communities against a national average using what it terms “a location quotient.” For team assemblers, it grades the greater Lansing region at 3.87. It means that for one assembly job nationally, there are 3.87 in Lansing.

Other jobs that exceed the national average are hand grinding and polishing workers and tool grinders, filers and sharpeners. Both are employed with the auto assembly process, which for Lansing remains the dominant driver of production and manufacturing employment.

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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