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The Strength of Manufacturing, Today and Tomorrow

During a recent staff meeting, I grabbed a can of soda from the mini-fridge in the conference room.  There was one lonely can of Vernors Ginger Ale amongst the plethora of cans of Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi.  Normally, I don't drink regular soda because of the sugar, but a spicy Vernors sure did sound good.  If you aren't familiar with Vernors, it's a long-time Detroit favorite.  A once regional product, it has become a nationwide staple.  Different from Canada Dry or Schwepps ginger ale, Vernors has a unique darker color and spiciness that makes it an acquired taste.

The logo of Vernors has always been an old style wooden stave barrel with riveted wrought iron bands.  Even this particular can was dressed up like an old barrel.  While holding the can in my hand, my mind was flooded of thoughts and memories about my connection with Detroit, and my grandfather, great uncle, and great grandfather that were in the barrel and crate business.  The business later transformed, just before WWII into a steel drum recycling company.
Detroit Barrel and Box

My great-grandfather, Israel "Sam" Bussell was a cooper, a barrel maker from Belarus.  Coopers, are a derivative of blacksmiths, who specialized in barrelmaking for commercial packaging.  My great-grandparent immigrated to the United States through Nova Scotia in the first decade of the 20th century.  Both Sam and Hannah were progressives, fleeing the oppression of the Czar of Russia (Nicholas II).  Like many of my eastern European relatives, Sam was a tradesman, and industrial Detroit was in need of skilled trades during the emergence of the developing Midwest. Detroit like other Great Lakes based cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo held important roles in the production of durable goods.
Harry, Sam, and Ben Bussell

Last night, I went to the movies with my wife, children, and my children's friends.  They wanted to see RoboCop, a remake of the pop-culture 1987 favorite.  As with the original, the remake takes place in a crime-ridden Detroit.  Unlike the original, the movie did use real footage and filming locations in the city, that despite the crime backdrop, didn't feed the media infused stigma that Detroit is a lost cause. Whenever I visit friends out of town, they always ask about the City of Detroit bankruptcy proceedings; as if everything in the city is defunct.  Although the numbers are bad, with the financial and crime statistic at looking dismal, the region has a high potential for rebound.

Southeastern Michigan, is still an important manufacturing center due to its close vicinity to fresh water, transportation, and top-quality public research universities.  Given globalization, Detroit still has a history as  the automobile capital of the world.  During WWII, the auto plants were retooled to build tanks, bombers, naval diesel engines, and ordinances that helped end the war.  Quickly thereafter those same plants were converted back to peacetime production that was rivaled by no other country on earth.  After another thirty years complacency and dimmed innovation created an efficiency gap in the 80's which nearly decimated the region. The same before mentioned globalization has brought foreign investment into the area.  The very competitors that nearly destroyed the US auto industry in the 80's are now an integral part of the manufacturing landscape intertwined as joint ventures for the continued supply of goods and services.

When I look at the old photos of my great-grandparents and grandparents, I can't help feel the contribution that was made by them an millions of others in building the city and our country.  Immigrants came to this country as part of the labor force that transformed the national economy from agrarian to manufacturing.  People left the farms for the cities in search of better paying jobs in factories.  The industrialization that occurred in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries was brutal.  Working conditions in factories, steel mills, construction sites, and mines was deplorable.  Severe injuries and untimely deaths due to inadequate safety devices and considerations was a fact of normal work life.

The advent of organized labor, Federal/State regulation of occupational safety and environmental management have helped reshape the nature of industry.  The recordable injury rate and work-related deaths have drastically been reduced from the careless rates of just 30 years ago. By no means are even these reduced levels of injury and death acceptable, but they are now just a small fraction of what was experienced during the onset of the industrial revolution a hundred years ago.

Twenty years ago, we would readily hear in the media that the United States would soon become a service economy.  The service sector has certainly surged, but in the next ten years, a stabilization is forecasted by the US Department of Labor:
This data clearly shows that the production of goods through mining, manufacturing, and construction will play an long standing role in our national employment.  In the Midwest states, we are still at the heart of that manufacturing core, but progressive roles of Southern states will continue to attract new investment if we are unable to use the leverage that Detroit still carries.  All of the basic ingredients are at hand, what is missing is the desire to be the heart of the machine.  As I scour through dozens of resumes and tens of interviews in the quest for high-skilled trades and engineers, I am sometimes downtrodden with the scarcity of talent.  Perhaps too many young prospects are gravitating towards a pipe-dream that wealth and happiness can only be achieved by creating the next dynamite cell phone application rather than being apart of rebuilding our nation's infrastructure.

     When I travel on the highway with my family, I always point out the trucks that carry steel in its many different forms.  What makes me most proud is when we come across a truck that carries steel that is from the plant that I work at, displaying the actual heat number and grade allowing me to be proud that something solid and physical that I worked on will be part of something great.  The time is now for us in influential positions to sponsor and perpetuate the importance of manufacturing to students in school and to young adults entering the workforce.  The manufacturing jobs of today are not mindless, but are enmeshed with creativity and ingenuity that allow us to be the best in the world.  Most major manufacturing sectors are migrating towards self-directed workforce environments that need less direct supervision.  In order to allow these concepts to take root, we need to educate, train, and inform the next generation about what it takes to be a great nation; to pull resources from the earth and to transform them with energy, intelligence, and fortitude so we can build great things that will last for generations.


  1. Nice post. As an electrical engineer employed in manufacturing since my internships in school I take pride in seeing manufacturing plants growing in se Mich as well.

  2. I am working on a history of the Ford Hunger March of 1932. One of the men killed during the protest was Joseph Bussell, his brother Ben spoke at the mass funeral a few days later. I was wondering if you have, and would eb willing to share, any photos of Joseph, The photo of Sam, Harry, and Ben did not load when I opened this article (which I enjoyed very much), and would also be interested in that picture as well.

    1. LloydIf you email me directly at I can give you some links and contacts for 1st hand information.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. If you aren't familiar with Vernors, it's a long-time Detroit favorite. printed whiteboard


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