A rising tide of automation, trade problems and lagging growth in productivity has slashed millions of jobs from the U.S. manufacturing sector. At the same time, a small factory in Northbridge, Massachusetts, has been hiring, expanding and exporting.
Riverdale Mills hopes to grow further by making unusual products and building a strong workforce.
Riverdale makes materials that have revolutionized lobster fishing with unique processes and materials. The company applied lessons from fishing to making security fences, including some that protect borders.
After welding, the wire metal mesh is dunked in a vat filled with tons of molten zinc at a historic building about an hour west of Boston. It's just one part of a complex process used to make many kinds of rust-resistant products.
That process combines skilled people and high-tech innovation. It's helping the company find new markets for updated products, and means while other factories are laying off workers, Riverdale's Dennis Meola is training new employees.
"We have an experienced operator training a new individual," Meola said. "We started a new person today, as a matter of fact."
Riverdale CEO Jim Knott says the company is growing, in part because he sells nearly half of his products overseas. Knott says he needs more than just machines to keep customers happy here and abroad.
"The key to being successful, both globally and in a domestic market, you have to have skilled or trained employees who are capable of making a leadership product that is better than what other people are making throughout the world," he said.
On a recent visit to Riverdale, technicians were upgrading computers and other equipment that helps to run a huge machine that makes hundreds of welds at once. More automation is the reason that U.S. manufacturers produce as much as ever, with ever fewer people.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Tom Kochan says automation and international trade has cut one-third of U.S. manufacturing jobs since 1980. He says American employers mistakenly think of labor only as a cost to be minimized, not an asset.
"Anytime some new form of technology comes along that they think they can replace that worker with technology, they tend to move in that direction," Kochan said. "Often what that does is it over-invests in technology and under-invests in worker skills, and they end up still being the high cost producer."
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MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee says the U.S. education system is turning out workers with the skills "we needed 50 years ago." He says a more modern approach is needed to boost productivity and prosperity.
"We need to be encouraging creativity," he said. "I think we need to be encouraging not just the ability to solve problems, but the ability to figure out what problem we should go chase down next. Technology is still lousy at that."
McAfee says people eventually will adapt to the changing work environment, much as their ancestors did when the U.S. economy shifted from farming to manufacturing. It was a wrenching transition that began around the time when the building that now houses Riverdale Mills produced bayonets for the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War.