Rochester Focuses On A New Picture Of American Manufacturing

Sep 29, 2014
Originally published on September 29, 2014 7:17 am

Rochester, N.Y., was once the imaging capital of the world, home to Kodak, Xerox and the eye care company, Bausch + Lomb.

Led by these companies, the manufacturing sector once employed 60 percent of Rochester's workforce. Now, that's less than 10 percent. And so, like many cities in this country, Rochester is trying to build something new from its manufacturing heritage.

If you want to understand the story of Rochester, says historian Carolyn Vacca, you need to come to High Falls, where from a bridge visitors see a waterfall and a panoramic view of downtown.

"We are in the heart of what was the center of Rochester, historically, and is still, somewhat, today," she says.

Part of the appeal to settlers was what she calls the "good dirt" around the Genesee River. "When Revolutionary soldiers came through the area they were coming from New England, where the dirt basically was good for holding rocks together at that point. And here, the soil is so fertile, so they immediately recognized the value of that and went home and told people there's a place we can get land where you can be a successful farmer," she says.

Farmers used the good Rochester dirt to grow grain. They needed somewhere to sell it, and that spawned flour mills — so many, in fact, that Rochester became known as Flour City. That legacy faded, though. The old mills along the river closed down — but the manufacturing seed had been planted. Eastman Kodak grew out of that.

For decades Rochester was Kodak.

At its peak in the 1980s, Kodak employed 60,000 people in the city. Today, it's just 2,300. It's been a painful collapse. And once again, in 2014, Rochester is trying to use its fertile soil to grow something new.

"Nobody ever wants to let go, obviously, not of something like Kodak that not only was so dominant, but had such a quality brand name. But, recognizing that we have to, we've moved on and created new things — new prospects for the future, building on what we had in the past," Vacca says.

'Just Gut Feel'

There are former Kodak employees at work in new places — like Exelis, which makes parts that may be in the Thirty Meter Telescope, one of the largest. When complete, it will peer out beyond the Milky Way, to the edge of the observable universe — 13 billion light-years away.

Mike Ognenovski, who is now with Exelis, worked at Kodak for 27 years, and sees parallels between the two companies. For example, Exelis uses polishers on its glass to make lenses, machines similar to ones used at Kodak on its camera lenses.

"The tradition is there. It just has another name. Now we're called Exelis," Ognenovski says. "The Kodak heritage technology that was there, that is essentially in the bedrock of what Kodak stood for back when George Eastman built it, is still there."

That said, this picture is far from perfect. You look at this factory: making incredible things with machines both old and new, but there's almost no one here. The factory has more than 16,000 square feet, but only 80 people work here.

"You look at the folks that are on this floor right now working, they're highly skilled, and what we want to do is make the work more of a science versus an art. Where optics in the past traditionally tends to be more art and that's where the optician came in," Ognenovski says. "So that means a lot of years of experience, a lot of manual labor, touching and feeling and just gut feel."

Gut feel. Touching things. Making things with your hands. That was American manufacturing.

Where Is The Blue Collar?

Now, it's less art, more science. And this is exactly the challenge today. Even when a place like Rochester seems to be figuring it out, this deeper problem remains. There are very few jobs for the blue-collar worker.

It's a conundrum Nabil Nasr thinks about every day. He's the associate provost and director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Among his many duties, Nasr's work seeks to help manufacturers remain competitive globally, and he thinks a lot about the future of manufacturing.

"Manufacturing today is not what it used to be. In the past, for example, Kodak used to make very sophisticated, high-precision lenses in a very primitive process that was very time-consuming," Nasr says. "Today, we're making very sophisticated computerized equipment that can make some of these lenses in a fraction of the time they used to spend in making those lenses before."

That takes skill. And there are RIT students training for the kinds of jobs they have at Exelis. But that still leaves the question: Where is the blue-collar worker today? What options are there for them?

"This is a serious issue, and I think there are a lot of people left out of the manufacturing sector, and there are a lot of barriers," Nasr says.

There are high-paying openings, he says, but not everyone is qualified for them because they require expertise and education. "They really want to get these jobs but they aren't able to because it would take them a long time to get there, and they're not able or willing to actually spend that time to get there," Nasr says.

The U.S. leads the way in many types of research and technology, but as we've heard about for years now, new technology means fewer jobs. And when workers are needed, companies can find them cheaper abroad. So, what does all this mean for the U.S.? Where does the modern factory fit into American life? Nasr says policymakers, big companies and communities have to come up with a plan.

"Manufacturing is so critical. I serve on an advisory board in Singapore. They want to take the best knowledge they can get to provide them with advice," he says. "Obviously, it's a small country but it's just phenomenal to see the will and the desire to make things happen and the metrics they develop, and the partnership between the government and industry, and of course they have a strong industrial policy."

Singapore is just one country in a global race. We'll be hearing in the coming weeks how the U.S. is cultivating its manufacturing sector to make sure it stays competitive.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story begins with an easily overlooked truth - America still makes stuff. For all the factories closed, all the wrenching changes in the global economy, the United States is a major manufacturer. And in the next few weeks, we'll report on how Americans are working to reinvent manufacturing.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, a new picture of manufacturing is coming into focus. Just so you know - that line - filled with puns.

INSKEEP: Picture of manufacturing, focus...

CORNISH: Because we're going to visit a city that was all about images. Rochester, New York, made its name as home to Kodak, Xerox and the eyecare company Bausch and Lomb.

INSKEEP: Manufacturing once employed 60 percent of Rochester's workforce. Now it's under 10 percent.

CORNISH: So Rochester is trying to build something new. And it's in Rochester that our colleague David Greene begins a project we call American Made.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATERFALL)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Historian Carol Vacca says, if you want to understand the story of Rochester, you need to come here to High Falls, where on a bridge, there's a waterfall and a panoramic view of downtown.

This is a great spot. Where are we sitting?

CAROL VACCA: We are in the heart of what was the center of Rochester, historically, and is still somewhat today, out over the Genesee River that attracted settlers because of the good dirt around it.

GREENE: You said, good dirt.

VACCA: Yes. Yeah. When revolutionary soldiers came through the area, they were coming from New England, where the dirt basically was good for holding rocks together at that point. And here, the soil is so fertile. So they immediately recognized the value of that and went home and told people, there's a place we can get land where you can be a successful farmer.

GREENE: And farmers used that good Rochester dirt to grow grain. Of course, they needed somewhere to sell it, and that spawned flour mills - so many, in fact, that Rochester became known as Flour City. That legacy faded, though. The old mills along the river closed down, but the manufacturing seed had been planted, and something else grew out of it - a landmark high-rise that looms over the river.

VACCA: That's Eastman Kodak, and for decades, Rochester was Kodak.

GREENE: Kodak was built on Rochester's manufacturing legacy and at its peak, employed 60 thousand people in this city. Today, it's just 2,300. It's been a painful collapse, and once again, in 2014, Rochester is trying to use its fertile soil to grow something new.

VACCA: Nobody ever wants to let go, obviously - not of something like Kodak that not only was so dominant, but had such a quality brand-name. But recognizing that we have to, we've moved on and created new things - new prospects for the future - building on what we had in the past.

GREENE: One thing Rochester got from Kodak was knowledge. There are former employees still a work in new places like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

GREENE: We've moved three miles or so downriver to the factory floor at a company called Exelis. I'm standing with Mike Ognenovski. He's the vice president of operations. And we're looking at this machine that has a giant spinning disk.

Mike, this looks like a large lazy Susan that I would have on my dining room table to pass - to pass food around. What exactly is it doing?

MIKE OGNENOVSKI: This is actually polishing. It's a large polisher.

GREENE: The kind of polisher once used for camera lenses at Kodak, where Ognenovski worked for 27 years. Now that old expertise has found its way into new projects - huge ones. Exelis is making parts that may be in one the largest telescopes on Earth - the Thirty Meter Telescope. Once complete, it will pear out beyond the Milky Way to edge of the observable universe, 13 billion light-years away. Different scale, but same approach and even some of the same tools.

But this room - I mean, I just look at it, and it makes me think that a lot the stories I read about Kodak being gone

OGNENOVSKI: Right.

GREENE: Demised. I mean, it's just - the tradition is there in a very real way.

OGNENOVSKI: The tradition is there. It just has another name. Now we're called Exelis, right? So the Kodak heritage technology that was there - that is essentially in the bed rock of what that - of what Kodak stood for back when George Eastman build it - is still there.

GREENE: All that said, this picture is far from perfect. You look at this factory, making incredible things with machines both old and new, but there's almost no one here. The factory is more than 16,000 square feet. Only 80 people were here.

OGNENOVSKI: You know, you look at the folks that are on this floor right now working - they're highly skilled. And what we want to do is make the work more of a science versus an art. Where - optics in the past traditionally tends to be more art, and that's where the optician came in. So that means a lot of years of experience, a lot of manual labor, touching and feeling and just gut-feel.

GREENE: Gut-feel, touching things, making things with your hands - that was American manufacturing. Today, it's less art and more science. And this is exactly the challenge. Even when a place like Rochester seems to be figuring it out, this deeper problem remains. There are very few jobs for the blue-collar worker. It's a conundrum that this man thinks about a lot.

NABIL NASR: My name is Nabil Nasr. I'm the associate provost and director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology - RIT.

GREENE: Part of Nasr's work at RIT is helping manufacturers cope with the changing landscape.

NASR: Manufacturing today is not what it used to be. In the past, for example, Kodak used to make very sophisticated, high-precision lens in a very primitive process that was very time-consuming. Today, we're making very sophisticated computerized equipment that can make some of this lens in a fraction of the time they used to spend making this lens before.

So I think things are changing - not just here in the U.S. I think everywhere else is changing. And a lot of people who relate to manufacturing still look at it from the same lens of the old ways of doing things.

GREENE: And that all takes skill. And there are students right here at RIT training for the kinds of jobs they have an Exelis. But that still leaves the question...

...Where's the blue-collar worker today? What options are there for them?

NASR: This is a serious issue. First of all, in terms of some of the opening that we have in manufacturing - some the, really, areas of needs - there are high paying jobs. But we don't get qualified people because they require certain expertise and education in math and algebra and a lot of things that some people don't have the foundation for. They can't pass the exams, so as a result, you can't - companies cannot train. So they weren't thinking of that when they were in schools. And they're not able or willing to actually spend that time to get there.

GREENE: And this is why we're spending a few weeks thinking about manufacturing in America. There is enormous potential. The U.S. leads the way of many types of research and technology. But as we've heard about for years now, new technology means fewer jobs. And when workers are needed, companies can find them cheaper abroad. So what does all of this mean for the United States? Where does the modern factory fit into American life? Professor Nasr, for his part, says, policymakers, big companies and communities have to come up with a plan.

NASR: Manufacturing is so critical. You know, I serve on an advisory board in Singapore. They want to take the best knowledge you can get to provide them with advice. Obviously, it's a small country, but it's just phenomenal to see the will and the desire to make things happen and the metrics that you develop and the partnership between the government and industry. And, of course, they have strong industrial policy.

GREENE: Singapore is just one country in a global race, and we'll be hearing in the coming weeks how the U.S. is cultivating its manufacturing sector to make sure it stays competitive.

CORNISH: Our colleague David Greene kicking off our American Made project with a visit to Rochester, New York. Tune in for more on the future of American manufacturing in the weeks to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.