Bring up manufacturing, and it might conjure mental images of shuttered factories or grimy, soot-smudged workers filing out of mill after a long shift.
But manufacturers across the country hope to get people to see the industry for what it is today: a still-vibrant and increasingly high-tech field in need of more skilled workers.
Today is the second annual Manufacturing Day and also the fifth annual Steel Day, which are both nationwide events aimed at changing public perception. Factories and steel mills across the country will open their doors to the public, and give busloads of schoolchildren and high school students tours.
They hope to reach out to future generations, let young people know what skills they will need to find manufacturing work that still pays better than most jobs, and remind the public the United States still makes stuff. Companies aim to show that manufacturing remains a vibrant part of the economy, and that the industry offers plenty of job opportunities to workers with strong math and computer skills.
"The main misconceptions we hope to dispel are that you can't find work in manufacturing and America doesn't manufacture anything anymore," said Joey Strawn, director of integrated marketing for Industrial Strength Marketing, one of the main organizers of the event. "It's a vital part of the American economy, and much is still made in the United States. It's a worthwhile thing to be part of. It's a good career that will provide for a family, support a lifestyle and let you work with cutting-edge technologies."
Tri-State Industries in Hammond hopes Manufacturing Day clears up misconceptions people might have, company owner Don Keller said.
"People have these mental images of steel mills and dirty old fab shops," he said. "We're not your grandfather's blacksmith shop anymore. We're into the more high-end automation part of it, and have heavily invested over the last year."
Tri-State Industries has been helping bring back manufacturing to the United States, by refurbishing old automation systems that let domestic companies stay competitive on costs with lower-wage countries like China, Keller said.
"A big problem is that people aren't looking at manufacturing as a career, or would never go into it," he said. "But here they're working with robots. It's clean. It involves programming. It's not your grandfather's type of manufacturing anymore."
No local Manufacturing Day events are planned in Northwest Indiana or the south Illinois suburbs this year. But interest has been growing nationally.
About 7,000 people attended 240 events in 31 states during last year's inaugural Manufacturing Day. This year, manufacturers are planning 772 events in all of the lower contiguous 48 states, two Canadian provinces and Puerto Rico, said Patricia Lee, director of marketing for Rockford, Ill.-based Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, one of the organizers.
When people tour the factories, they get a better idea of how much is still made right in their backyards, Lee said. They also see the working conditions are better than they might have imagined.
"It's not dangerous, dirty, or only for the strong of back," Lee said. "It's not putting up with a boring activity. Modern manufacturing plants use a lot of computer technology. You have to be smart, do a lot of math and be comfortable around computers."
In fact, manufacturing has become so high-tech that employers have had trouble finding skilled enough job candidates to fill all their openings, Lee said. The industry has about 600,000 unfilled positions for skilled workers.
"That's been going on for years, and it was the case through the whole recession," she said.
* Editors note: This story was corrected from previous versions.