Why Towns Want Manufacturing Plants

A manufacturing facility can harness and focus the native ability of people growing up in a town, and channel this into livelihoods and homes for the town’s next generation. Is this something we lost sight of and are now seeing again?


I am part of the generational cohort called “Gen X.” That means I landed in a particular place within the multi-decade story of America’s relationship with manufacturing. For me, the notion of manufacturing plants thriving within towns and small cities existed largely in others’ memories. As I was growing up, plants were either closed or in the process of closing. Industrial enterprises operating at a smaller level than they once did, and industrial facilities that were all or partly empty, were part of the landscape and environs of my industrial hometown.

That is why it was so eye-opening for me recently to spend time in a town where this did not occur. The L.S. Starrett Co. is a manufacturer of measurement tools (among other products) that was founded in 1880 and simply has not left or retreated from its hometown of Athol, Massachusetts. Brent Donaldson and I recently visited to record an episode of our podcast, Made in the USA. Taping an episode about Starrett meant recording the voices of many who work in the 600-employee Athol plant. In hearing the stories of career professionals here, one theme that kept recurring was, I did not expect to work in manufacturing.

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Tim Cucchi is an example. He grew up in Athol near the plant, but assumed he would never work there. He gave college a try. He sought summer employment to pay for tuition. It could have been making pizzas or working for Starrett; the latter job offered a higher wage. He started nights in 1995 welding carbide onto bandsaw blades. “I didn’t know what welding was,” he says. “I didn’t know what measuring tools were.” He did not love the night work, but success led to opportunities for more complex work by day. Soon he was part of a team manufacturing micrometers. Soon also he became a husband and a father. The summer job in this plant that had loomed over his childhood very gracefully opened the way to the stable career that provided for his children, and today, the man who once did not know what a measuring tool was is now a product manager for precision hand tools. And many, many people working in manufacturing can tell stories just like this, quite possibly including you who are reading these words.

To some extent, manufacturing is now valued again in the popular imagination. I do not know to what extent. But there is the feel that the leaders and stakeholders who might have ignorantly said good riddance when they saw manufacturing decline in the 1970s and 1980s, and felt no concern when they saw it go offshore in the 2000s, now appreciate that something of value has been lost, and see it as worth regaining. Political leaders want manufacturing facilities back, it seems. What do they want when they want this?

They want jobs. That is, manufacturing jobs in the U.S., or in their communities. There is a caution to this: Manufacturing is more automated now and does not necessarily provide the quantity of jobs it once did. Yet there is also a corrective to this caution: Manufacturing has always been getting more automated. This means the jobs people perform can accomplish more, but manufacturing jobs are still part of the deal. And those jobs are good.

Those jobs are good for multiple reasons. They provide a path and they tend to stay. Examining each of these points in turn:

  • Manufacturing jobs provide a path. Plenty of people begin adulthood not sure what to do with themselves or their lives. This is normal, and the starting point for many who will do great things. But when people with this uncertainty remain near the small town in which they grew up, we generally do not have a way forward to offer them. Restaurant jobs offer few advancement paths and hospitals offer advancement only to those with medical education. But where there is a manufacturing facility doing valuable production, there are skilled positions, and many of the needed skills can be learned on the job. More than a path, manufacturing offers a ladder, the first rung of which is within plain reach.
  • Manufacturing jobs tend to stay. Of course, it is possible for plants to close. I began this piece noting that very thing. But it does not happen quickly or easily. A business focused on information or client service often can scatter or relocate as the result of an acquisition, consolidation or even just one major meeting. In manufacturing, the presence of capital equipment creates some stability through an anchor of rootedness in a place. The result is that the skilled jobs are located in that place as well, and families can become rooted around them.

This rootedness, this multigenerational duration: Right now, it seems as though employers and employees are so far from this. Many types of workplaces today are trying simply to find a new, partial accord between employees working far from one another in their homes and coming together in an office again. Our sense of the workplace as being something so definite, solid and lasting as a manufacturing plant seems far away and hard to see. However, that also makes the value more starkly apparent — to the point that today, I think we are now seeing that value again all the more clearly, recognizing it as if for the first time.

Peter Zelinski writes about manufacturing technology and how it is changing. Find more of his work related to CNC machining and additive manufacturing. To suggest an article topic related to a success in your manufacturing facility or business, or a technology development you are close to, email him here.