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Broken ladder

President Barack Obama believes it. So do Gov. Andrew Cuomo and local economic development leaders.

Indeed, for many it’s an article of faith that manufacturing employment is the key to long-term prosperity. Why? Because production jobs historically have paid well and lifted poorer workers to the middle class.

The decline in industrial employment over the last quarter-century has brought wrenching change to many communities. Take Rochester: In 1990, manufacturers employed nearly 125,000 people; today, the number is less than half that.

While the tide still has not turned here, the end of dramatic downsizing at Eastman Kodak Co. has brought some stability and spurred hopes of a manufacturing revival.

But what if a core belief about manufacturing jobs—that they pay better than average—no longer were true?

A new paper by researchers at the UC Berkeley Labor Center highlights the fact that unlike in the past when production workers earned significantly more in wages than the U.S. average, these workers now lag the median wage for all occupations. 

As a result, more production workers now need the assistance of public safety net programs such as the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families and food stamps. More than one-third of all frontline manufacturing workers have families enrolled in at least one of these five programs.

The study looked at non-supervisory production workers—roughly half of total manufacturing employment. Nationwide, these positions account for nearly 6 million jobs.

New York ranks in the top 10, with a family participation rate among production workers of 39 percent.

The UC Berkeley researchers are underscoring the need to create more production jobs like the ones we had in the past—jobs with good wages that helped workers to climb the economic ladder.

5/13/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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