In the 1950s, much of what the world drove, ate, wore and served breakfast on was made in the U.S. Post-war prosperity, a baby boom and a great global need for everything from building materials to medical equipment kept American factories busy for years. Since then, manufacturing jobs – and with them, manufacturing engineers’ jobs – moved out of the country. Outsourcing to developing countries where payroll and overhead costs were lower was a common practice.
That mass export of jobs is changing course, and it’s changing the landscape for American engineering students. Reshoring, the practice of bringing overseas manufacturing opportunities back to the U.S., is picking up speed.
Why Reshoring Is Happening
Many developing countries that used to produce manufactured goods at a low price have since grown prosperous themselves. Japan has been a financial force for decades, setting an economic example for other nations to follow. Demand for manufactured goods such as consumer electronics and cars has skyrocketed in China and India, and so has the demand for local skilled labor. Countries that used to produce items solely for export now want to drive the cars and use the cell phones their workers produce. Those burgeoning markets and newly affluent members of the middle class are driving up business expenses and payroll costs.
Other countries, unfortunately, have destabilized and are now seen as too risky for business ventures. Large multinational corporations that would have invested millions in building plants are increasingly looking to less risky ventures in the U.S. Meanwhile, American manufacturing engineers and factory workers have been urging politicians to offer incentives to welcome businesses back home. The cost of doing business overseas, both financially and politically, has made many companies in the U.S. reconsider leaving.
Factories don’t just provide jobs to workers on an assembly line. Jobs for manufacturing engineers, metal fabricators, automation designers, inventors and administrators come with any factory opening. These jobs also open the door to innovation, especially for companies that invest heavily in R&D as part of their reshoring strategy.
Restoring with Reshoring
For businesses in the U.S. and the engineers who work with them, reshoring is outstanding news. Most STEM careers have remained in high demand throughout the recession and a gradual recovery, but manufacturing engineers have seen less of a lift from their professions than many others due to the outsourcing of many positions by major manufacturing companies. As those companies begin to see state-side factories and regional talent as an economically viable option, manufacturing engineers can expect brighter job prospects, particularly in areas of the south and northeast where the infrastructure for manufacturing has stayed largely intact despite flagging demand.
Preparing for Reshoring
The economic importance of bringing home manufacturing jobs and the engineering, research and development roles that go with them is hard to calculate. Although the trend has been going on for the past decade, it’s still a slow process. Large businesses move at a glacial pace, and that makes precise predictions about job growth difficult to make. It’s a safe bet, though, that engineering students who focus on automated processes, software engineering and manufacturing will be growth industries.
For engineering students who are still in school, that might mean refocusing on production, automation, and software engineering. Over the last few years, petroleum engineering and bioengineering have been the hot fields, but manufacturing and automation are set to join these established in-demand sectors as possibilities for engineers.
Practical applications could also be a useful advantage for some students. Don’t overlook work-study programs that let students gain on-the-job experience within factories and metal fabrication workshops. Having some knowledge of how factories operate can only help in the coming wave of reshoring. Business classes would also be a wise choice.