When you think of a factory worker, what sort of image pops in your mind? I know in my mind I picture two things: first, the old 1800s images of men and women standing at a factory assembly line putting things together; and second the sorts of things we see on ‘How it’s Made’ where people are standing watching things go by that have been made by the completely automated machines. Either image conjures the stereotypical ‘blue collar’ worker, right?

What if we thought differently about manufacturing? What if we, like manufacturers in North Carolina, think of factory workers as “knowledge workers?” There’s something to this. Tipper Tie, a shop that makes food service equipment, decided that workers wouldn’t be treated like ‘assembly-line automatons’ anymore. But rather, their employees would be given the authority to “call the shots and make decisions” and at company meetings are even able to “shoot down the boss’ ideas.” What a novel concept!  Instead of telling an employee what to do and having them do it until further instructions are given, they have a say in their job’s goals and how to go about doing their job. This concept may not be so novel to ‘white collar’ jobs, but in the manufacturing industry, on the factory floor, this is pretty groundbreaking.

Reinventing the manufacturing industry into “a thinking person’s career” is what Tipper Tie sees as North Carolina’s manufacturing future. Since most of the manufacturing jobs have moved overseas to non-skilled workers paid low wages, and other sorts of manufacturing jobs have been turned over to automation, factories in the US can no longer compete for those manufacturing jobs. Turning what manufacturing is left in the US to “an economy of knowledge workers” is the way of the future… at least the future of North Carolina.

North Carolina has spent about $37.5 million training manufacturing workers and subsidizing their pay since 2008 through a program called Service Thread. They do this because the economic benefit (taxes received) benefits the state many times over. At Tipper Tie, workers that have benefitted from this program have been instrumental in making changes to their employers and the increasing the productivity and morale of the employees.

Let’s spread the word! Kudos to North Carolina and what their Service Thread program is doing. If the other 49 states would only hop on board! Where would manufacturing be then?


*Quotes in this article are from a column published in News & Observer, February 9, 2013.