New Blue Collar Skills

Economist Paul Krugman recently argued that a college education is no longer a guarantor of economic success, as automation and offshoring of many white-collar jobs reduces demand for college graduates. But the rise of open fabrication, and a growing body of “tinkerers,” as science fiction writer David Brin calls them, may chart a path to a re-invigorated blue collar workforce wielding sophisticated new skills. As Krugman argues:

Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that’s hard to automate. Notably, with production workers in manufacturing down to about 6% of U.S. employment, there aren’t many assembly-line jobs left to lose.

David Brin's science fiction novel Tinkerers describes a future renaissance of fabrication skills.

If Krugman is right, open fabrication could be a powerful growth accelerant for a stable base of non-routine manufacturing jobs. Rather than being a Hail Mary pass to save American industry as we know it, open fabrication will be the next stage of its evolution.

From a public policy perspective, this strongly points towards the need for training in 3D design and printing. Indeed, in a recent report commissioned by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, the top five recommendations to the government were all focused on beefing up support, curriculum, and facilities to teach design and manufacturing in public schools and regional manufacturing clusters.  (See Further Reading for the report, titled Factory@Home: The Emerging Economy of Personal Manufacturing.)

From a larger cultural perspective, manufacturing itself is enjoying a resurgence in the public eye. Chrysler’s, “This is the Motor City, this is what we do” Superbowl ad in 2011, which starred Detroit rapper Eminem, received acclaim from critics and fans alike. Tagline: “Imported from Detroit.”

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