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The prognosis is grim for employment in manufacturing, long the foundation of Northwest Indiana's economy and a ticket to a decent middle class life.

The manufacturing sector currently employs 14.3 million workers nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the federal agency projects that factory jobs are expected to dwindle to 12.1 million by 2024, a decline of 2.1 million over the next decade.

A recent study says it's not cheap imports that are to blame as much as it is simple progress in how we make things.

While cheap imports have affected local steelmakers, the main culprit in overall factory job losses is increasing automation in factories, according to the study by Conexus Indiana and Ball State University.

"Overwhelmingly, the largest impact is productivity. Almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth, and the long-term changes to manufacturing employment are mostly linked to the productivity of American factories," Ball State Professors Michael Hicks and Srikant Devaraj wrote in the study.

The two found growing demand for manufacturing goods in the U.S. has offset some of those job losses, but the effect is modest.

U.S. manufacturing on the whole is not struggling in the current economy. The Indiana Manufacturers Association estimates Indiana produced more than $100 billion worth of goods in 2015 for the first time in history. The United States is the second biggest manufacturer internationally, cranking out $2 trillion in output a year, trailing only China's $2.9 trillion, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.