STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In previous generations, manufacturing jobs were often dirty, dangerous, often low-skilled. That time is long past. New manufacturing jobs are much cleaner. They require increasingly higher skill levels, and they're taking increasingly fewer people to do them. As part of our series American Made, we sent NPR's Sonari Glinton to a center for old manufacturing - South Bend, Indiana - to listen to people as they ponder the future.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I've covered business, the auto industry for a few years now, and I've been to my fair share of factories. I even worked at one in college, but the MTI factory in South Bend, Indiana, is a little different. They use a process called high-friction welding.
DAN ADAMS: It's exactly like a blacksmith taking two pieces of a sword, sticking it into the fire until they're cherry-red and then banging them together until they stick.
GLINTON: But instead of fire, they use friction to create heat. It's a forging process more than your sparks-flying welding. Oh, and that's Dan Adams. His family has run MTI for almost a hundred years.
ADAMS: It's going to create a squeal. This sound is all acceleration.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE RUNNING)
ADAMS: Probably just pegged your microphone.
GLINTON: (Laughter) Yeah. I'll give you some time to recover. OK, that was two tree-sized metal cylinders being forged. At MTI, they do welding, but they also make machines that make parts and other machines. It's a growing business, and I met one of their new workers.
NATHAN GREEN: My name is Nathan Green. I work assembly at MTI, that's Manufacturing Technology. We build machines that go all around the world.
GLINTON: Nathan Green is an apprentice at MTI. He laughed at me when I asked if his job was low-skill.
GREEN: That's what a lot of people think. No, it's not. You got to know what you're doing out here. Those machines over there, running and turning, they're running at real high rpms. If you don't tighten stuff down like that - just imagine if a screw pops out and something's moving, like, 1500 rpms, you know, spinning that fast, you know. A screw pops out, hits you in the head, it'll take you out, you know.
GLINTON: Green is an apprentice. He gets in at 2:45 a.m. and worked until 11 in the morning, then goes to school. He showed me some of the work he does.
GREEN: This is a mill right here. I might have to use one of those to edge out those pieces in that big block. Do you think anybody can just run this? Just looking at it, do you think?
GLINTON: I don't even know which end is up, man.
GREEN: Exactly, you have to be trained on these things, you now. These are real calibrated. They're real calibrated, real precise machines. They cut to, like, hundreds of thousands of an inch.
GLINTON: To be clear, he's at the very bottom of the totem pole. He was a temp at the company for three years. He got his apprenticeship, where he makes about $13 an hour, in April. And the hope is that he'll make twice that amount eventually.
GREEN: I just like to tinker with things or work on cars in my spare time. I like messing with tools. I like - at home, I just take things apart. As a kid, I always took things apart and put them back together just to see how they work, you know.
GLINTON: Green, who's 35, has clear aptitude. He went to school for computer science. He worked for some big companies, and he has a leg up. I asked him, what would a new worker need to be successful at a high-end manufacturer like this?
GREEN: You need a blueprint class. You have to know how to read blueprints 'cause the first thing they're going to do, they're going to give you a blueprint, and they're going to walk away. And they'll be like, work on this machine. If you can't read blueprints, it's not going to work.
GLINTON: That's just the beginning, and understanding the basic science doesn't hurt. Technical aptitude doesn't hurt. What's amazing about this place is the size of everything. MTI makes building sized machines, two and three stories a piece, 40 feet long, millions of dollars. There's one thing, though, that isn't gigantic in this plant, the number of workers on the factory floor.
GREEN: (Unintelligible) Some guys probably, at the most I'd say anywhere from 15 to 20.
GLINTON: That's it?
GREEN: And I'm thinking high. It might only be 15.
GLINTON: That machine is - how many stories tall is that machine, about three stories?
GLINTON: And it's only 15 people making a three-story machine?
GLINTON: South Bend's manufacturing output, though, is growing, and while its unemployment rate has gone down a lot, the town is nowhere near full employment. By chance, I ran into South Bend's mayor, Pete Buttigieg, after my tour with Nathan Green. Buttigieg says when new jobs come to town, they're in the tens, not the hundreds. He says we're in a world where the Nathan Greens are going to be increasingly rare.
MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: If we're moving closer and closer to a world where all you need is one guy to push one button to fire up a machine in order to make everything we need, what does that mean for work? What does that mean for the middle class, and what does that mean for the way we organize our communities?
GLINTON: Those are questions we're going to have to answer soon, probably sooner than we all think. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.