The U.S. high-tech manufacturing comeback suddenly has a lot of people talking, from union laborers to the President of the United States. But, how many jobs is it really creating?
Tuesday night, in his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama announced plans to add six high-tech manufacturing hubs across the United States.
"Bipartisan bills in both houses could double the number of these hubs and the jobs they create. So, get those bills to my desk and put more Americans back to work," Obama said.
These hubs will be in addition to the pilot he launched in Youngstown, OH in 2013 and the second hub he unveiled in Raleigh, NC earlier this month. This follows his 2013 State of the Union address when he asked Congress to, "help create a network of fifteen of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America." Later that year in the summer he asked Congress to support an even larger network of 45 hubs, according to whitehouse.gov. But, what does this demand for high-tech manufacturing actually mean for the American economy? What does it mean for Youngstown?
What it looks like in Youngstown
Nearly a year after it's launch the The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, OH has proven itself a successful pilot for the high-tech hub initiative, kind of. It hasn't directly added many jobs, with only about 20 people working there; but Youngstown Mayor John McNally says that's not the point. The point is to increase the technology profile of Youngstown and increase the interplay between universities and corporations.
Youngstown, which sits about halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, was once a steel town like it's neighbors. Now, these communities that once collaborated on steel, are collaborating on technology and innovation. What was once the rust belt is becoming the tech belt.
"What we want to do is really encourage the growth of a regional, technical, industrial community," McNally said.
The facility has brought attention and a certain level of pride to the city. McNally hopes they can leverage the to attract more talented faculty and students to Youngstown State University. The university has already received some research grants. He is also hoping it brings manufacturing experts and entrepreneurs to work with their business incubator that is attached to the facility.
The writing on the walls
It's seems that many transnational companies sensed the shift back to the Made in America trend for manufacturing before this address. Lenovo built a manufacturing line in Whitsett, NC and they were slated to hire over 100 workers. Tim Cook announced on Twitter the new Mac Pro would be manufactured in Austin. GE opened new assembly lines in Kentucky to build appliances. Even Foxconn, the maker of Apple's iPhone, is looking to move stateside.
High-tech manufacturing jobs typically look a lot different than traditional manufacturing jobs. High-tech manufacturing requires far fewer workers as it is usually automated. But Obama's mission of creating jobs might not be fulfilled by the manufacturing facilities themselves. When visiting North Carolina State University to unveil the hub in Raleigh, the president explained that the hubs would encourage partnerships and foster new ideas that would drive other industries.
"They'll help to lift up our communities," Obama said. "They'll help spark the technology and research that will create the new industries, the good jobs required for folks to punch their ticket into the middle class."
In the case of Youngstown, the facility is lifting up their community. But, dropping the number of proposed hubs from 45 down to six does little to instill confidence in this plan. The president's plan is not a quick fix to add jobs, but it does have the potential as a long-term movement to drive technological engagement and innovation in its target cities.
Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is Enterprise Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.