We regularly hear that Australian manufacturing must become more innovative and technologically advanced, in order to survive the pressures of global markets. With the recent dissolution of car manufacturing in Australia, these issues have come into sharp relief. Contrary to some media representations, Australian manufacturing is not ‘dead’. Recent analysis has shown that the manufacturing sector is no longer in sharp decline. There is increasing emphasis on advanced manufacturing, cutting-edge technologies, and limited-production runs for niche, specialised products. This offers a limited number of opportunities for highly-skilled employment in design and STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics), but far fewer secure and well-paid opportunities for working class employment.
These changes are often framed in economic or technological terms, and often presented as inevitable. But such transitions are also cultural and social, and entirely bound up with political decision-making over time. In real terms, the changes in manufacturing have profound consequences for social class, vocational education, gendered work, and community welfare in formerly manufacturing-reliant communities.
For manufacturing workers to find their place in the new world of advanced manufacturing, retraining and reskilling will evidently be necessary. This project, however, challenges this accepted narrative by asking why it is we always expect workers to be flexible to accommodate the market – and at what cost does this occur?
What happens if we invert the paradigm by asking: what do we already have? What are our existing strengths? Does Australia have thousands of manufacturing workers with ‘redundant’ skills, or an incredible body of knowledge and practice that is rich with complex understandings of materials, craft, making and design?
To answer this, an understanding of recent history is vital. This project endeavours to provide an historically informed understanding of Australia’s creative and productive capacity, which avoids nostalgic representations of craft skills as relics of a ‘time gone by’. By focusing on the knowledge and skills of manufacturing tradespeople, this research reframes the social and design value of so-called ‘traditional’ craft and maker practices and trades knowledge. We ask what might be retained, reimagined and revitalised in the context of the future of work in Australia.
In doing so, this research explores the social and cultural dimensions of industrial change – humanising manufacturing workers, and presenting their experience in the full context of their lives as individuals, family members and community participants. This entails, among other things, understanding people’s practices and adaptive strategies as creative makers and life-long learners, both within and beyond the workplace.
Within the highly politicised realm of Australian manufacturing, some workers have found a specialisation that works for them; some see these transformations as refreshing. Others are left bereft, with the sense that their country has abandoned them. Some are deeply angry, and embrace extreme political views. Others still are simply trying to make a living, doing whatever it takes to support their family and pay for housing.
Many former manufacturing workers have opted to move to other industries, which carries economic and emotional consequences. Some have chosen to retrain and ‘reskill’. The emotional and economic costs of reskilling can be enormous, and are often borne individually, with little social support. The stories are numerous and vary widely, but an important common thread is that manufacturing workers are not mere units that can be simply picked up and transferred somewhere else: they have ties to community, place, and highly particularised existing knowledge and skill-sets.
The project will ultimately develop a model of understanding about how workers and employers can collaboratively generate a fair and viable transition to advanced manufacturing that capitalises upon human adaptability, creativity and existing skills, without sacrificing social wellbeing.
This research employs oral history and ethnographic methods. One part of this project entails design ethnography within Australian industrial design consultancies. Another major part of the research is the Reshaping Australian Manufacturing Oral History Project, conducted with the National Library of Australia. The first phase of interviews focuses on the trade of engineering patternmaking.