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On Manufacturing

Discerning manufacturing's future in Rhode Island is no easy task.

For all the trends I identify in this week's cover story in the Phoenix - "Making It In RI: Can manufacturing rescue the state's economy?" - there are, of course, counter-examples.

I write, for instance, of the increasingly sophisticated training that the modern factory - a high-tech, robot-heavy institution - requires of its employees. At one of the companies I visited, Astro-Med, management requires technicians to have an associates degree or better. That means, among other things, that for the unskilled labor that once dominated the factory floor, advancement is not as easy as it once was; you can't just learn the skills for higher-level work on the job.

But in a visit to a Raytheon manufacturing facility in Portsmouth, I was standing inside a climate-controlled facility that produces minehunting sonar when a handful of executives told me that most of their employees arrive with basic high-school-graduate skills and learn on the job.

The 21st Century factory, in short, is no monolith.

But trends are still trends. The Rhode Island factory is a far more advanced, far more efficient machine than the average citizen probably realizes; it has to be if it is to flourish circa 2012. And that, inevitably, means fewer opportunities for the undereducated worker.

It is, ultimately, of a piece with the drift of the broader economy. And it suggests that the most important manufacturing policy we can pursue may be education reform - not just for the workers' sake, but for the businesses themselves.

Indeed, as manufacturing grows more sophisticated, more tech-driven, a talented workforce is something like a prerequisite for survival.

One more note: for all you NPR listeners, I should be on Rhode Island Public Radio's "Morning Edition" tomorrow discussing this story. Thanks to the folks at RIPR for having me.

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