There has been a lot said in recent months about the state of manufacturing in the United States. Many jobs have disappeared in the past several decades. But Jose Rodriguez is still making it in America.
He is an assistant supervisor at Vent-A-Hood, which produces high-end stove exhaust systems in a factory in Richardson, Texas, "I like the place and they treat me well".
Rodriguez, who was never able to go to college, has been able to make a good living and support his wife and two daughters, "I don't think I could find another job that would pay me what I am making now".
Rodriguez has kept this steady job for 27 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in that same time frame more than five million manufacturing positions have been lost in the United States.
Skip Woodall is the CEO of Vent-A-Hood, and says he has been told over the years that it might be beneficial to move the company’s manufacturing to places like Mexico or China. Adjacent to the Richardson warehouse, the company maintains a mini-museum that chronicles its 84-year history—all of it in North Texas. Woodall acknowledges what the museum doesn’t mention—that there have been deliberations along the way about possibly moving away, "Of course we research everything. We looked into all of that."
Like many executives, he says taxes and regulations make it harder to justify producing products in the U.S. But he says when they added it all up, the cheaper labor elsewhere was just no match for what the company could achieve with American workers--even relatively well paid ones, "I don't even know what the minimum wage is. We don't even have anything close to that. We have many (employees) in the 20-year club--and plus. We haven't had a layoff yet."
But Woodall will be the first to tell you that staying in business and staying here wouldn't have been possible without a whole cadre of workers that never need a break. During a tour of the factory he showed us what you might term ‘robot row’, an entire section of machines producing hardware in a continuous rhythm, "We couldn't be here without automation and it is constantly improving".
Even though most of the mechanized section was intermittently manned by humans maintaining and supervising the automated processes, some labor observers have worried about how much machines are improving. There have been warnings that robots—not foreign workers—are the new threat to American manufacturing jobs. Woodall believes that concern is overblown, "I'm always asked how many employees will your new machines replace? And it's like how many more employees will we need? Because we are more competitive, we can build more products; our quality improves."
Jose Rodriguez hopes for his sake and the country's sake that balance can somehow be sustained. But just in case it can't, he's comforted to know that his two daughters will have options he didn't have. He was able to send them to college thanks to his well-paying factory job that didn't go away when many others did.