Jon Emont's Wall Street Journal story, "How Singapore Got Its Manufacturing Mojo Back," is required reading for city and state planners intent on developing more local manufacturing. If we read closely, Singapore's experience is a road map for how manufacturing will likely develop in communities across America -- and the news is good.
Emont first notes that Singapore's manufacturing employment has declined as a percentage of the whole. For those who follow manufacturing, it's a symphony of numbers we're all familiar with. "The manufacturing sector's share of Singapore's employment declined to 12.3 percent last year from 15.5 percent in 2013," Emont writes. "The number of manufacturing workers has shrunk for eight years straight."
More: "The city-state had faced industrial decline, with World Bank figures showing manufacturing falling to 18 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, from 27 percent in 2005."
Then manufacturing made a comeback, Emont says, "rising to 21 percent of GDP in 2020, according to the World Bank's latest figures. Singapore government data shows manufacturing made up 22 percent of its GDP in 2021."
The most telling number is how Singapore's new manufacturing economy has fundamentally changed, to where today, "the share of manufacturing jobs held by resident workers classified as high-skill -- professionals, managers, executives, and technicians -- has risen by 8 percentage points to 74 percent last year."
This is a huge number. As Emont concludes, "Manufacturing is becoming a white-collar profession in Singapore."
One barrier to a full-on manufacturing comeback in the U.S. has been the perception of a dumb and dirty sector. If the global trend is similar, and we know it is, then American communities, many who flash significant assets fueled by R&D and technology, are poised to play host to more manufacturing.
On one hand, it's counterintuitive: We equate tech economies with everything but manufacturing. But what's evident is that technology will be the catalyst for more advanced manufacturing -- and more jobs.
To be sure, America's manufacturing workforce hasn't reached "white collar" status; and it's unclear what an ideal mix looks like in the U.S., home to an infinitely more complex and diverse economy. Yet Jim Watson, CEO of California Manufacturing Technology Consulting, told me earlier this year that "36.9 percent of manufacturing employment is in high technology" in the Golden State. (Watson has since revised that number up.) It may not be a precise equivalent, and we lag considerably behind advanced manufacturing outposts like Singapore. But the gist is the same: Manufacturing's future workforce is trending high-tech. California, for one, will benefit.
Yes, companies must get on the automation bandwagon. Investments in new equipment and processes are the cost of entry to compete for employees. And as always, it's our collective responsibility to upskill American labor. We owe it to manufacturing's workforce.
But for communities intent on building a more robust and diverse manufacturing sector, today the intersection between high-tech jobs and growth in manufacturing bodes well. It's no longer a stark choice: high-tech or low-skilled manufacturing jobs -- but not both.
Tomorrow, advanced economies will be manufacturing economies.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.