COVID-19’s Impact on Industrial Manufacturing

The United States is preparing for prolonged shutdowns in the wake of the novel coronavirus. As of this writing, confirmed cases in the country have exceeded 175,000 and more than 3,400 are dead. In addition to these grim statistics, the virus is currently steamrolling through the American economy.

Coronavirus’ Sucker Punch

COVID-19 under Electron Microscope

The United States experienced robust unemployment rate figures over the past six months, with numbers hovering at 3.5 to 3.6 percent. However, as businesses continue to shutter and lay off workers in the U.S., in an attempt to contain COVID-19, the country is experiencing record numbers of Americans filing for unemployment. 

In fact, the Department of Labor reported figures that show the number of jobless claims are as high as 3.3 million, beating out an all-time high of 695,000 that happened in October 1982. Some analysts are predicting that it might take up to three years for the American economy to recover from the ripple effects of COVID-19, although strong social distancing and lockdown measures have the potential to dramatically speed up this timeline.

While there may be a muted economic recovery as COVID-19 proliferates and eventually abates, the outlook isn’t so grim for the industrial engineering industry compared to others. In spite of the downturn, industrial engineers are still in demand and should expect to get hired, albeit more slowly. They should also manage to stay employed during and after the outbreak in certain industries.

History and Industrial Engineers 

Although several economic factors contributed to the rise and fall of unemployment in America over the last three decades, some of them smarted more than others. Chief among them were NAFTA and its resulting deindustrialization and globalization, along with the housing crisis of 2008.

February 28, 2020 marked worst week since 2008

Both catastrophes sent job seekers and employees scrambling and trying to maneuver through economic uncertainty. Fortunately, the industrial engineer has remained ubiquitous at the workplace throughout the upheaval because the field’s curriculum prepares them for a multidisciplinary approach in an ever-changing work environment.

Old is New Again

The United States held on to some manufacturing as corporations moved operations en masse to other countries that could make products at a fraction of the cost. In times leading up to the downturn caused by the pandemic, Americans witnessed the nation transform into a mostly service-based economy. 

The outbreak of COVID-19, on the other hand, has caused a paradigm shift in available jobs, while massively changing industry trends. For example, many service industry jobs, largely dominant in the past, are decreasing.

Recession Proof Sectors

Sectors rising to the top that remain recession proof are the manufacturing and construction industries. These industry leaders indicated that these sectors are currently more likely to delay making important decisions on layoffs. Rubeela Farooqi discussed the reasons why.

Farooqi, who is a chief economist at New-York-based economic research company High Frequency Economics, said, “In construction and manufacturing, you can’t just hire someone with no experience, especially if they expect a rebound. Employers will be hesitant to lay off workers to cut costs. Instead, be betting on people taking preventative measures in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Many of these jobs are supported by project managers, systems engineers and software developers, all of which industrial engineers often have skill sets for and gravitate toward. Unfortunately, the same may not hold true for smaller manufacturing and construction companies. They may have to lay off their workers, especially if they can’t ship their goods at this time.

Job Outlook Amid Uncertainty

Firms in a variety of industries such as construction and engineering will continue to seek new ways to improve efficiency and contain costs amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout. Luckily, industrial engineers are prepared and well-versed in the need to switch careers as economic changes and other factors dictate. 

Also, industrial engineers should keep an eye on any news trends about insourcing. Vulnerabilities in the supply chain and sub-par foreign-made products, along with dissatisfaction surrounding China’s chokehold on critical medicines during the COVID-19 outbreak, could lead to a push to bring companies back to the United States.

Final Thoughts

There is a need for companies on American soil, especially when it comes to critical products such as ventilators. Ventilators, which are in short supply during the pandemic, comprise a topic that has come to the forefront. The government has known about the shortage for over a decade, and missions to build affordable models on American soil have failed.

Politicians, sensitive to the crisis, have stated that there will be a one-time deal to motivate companies that had previously offshored their businesses to come back to the United States.  However, the carrot dangling may not be enough for them to pull up stakes and move back. Companies, after all, are usually in it for the same things industrial engineers and the rest of us are, and that is to make money.  

Politicians would need to put their money where their mouth is and lessen operating costs, strict regulations, even stricter environmental standards, and other barriers to profits before companies will even think of coming back. 

Until then, the industrial engineering industry will adapt and persevere.

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