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Workers who put together the parts of manufactured products are called assemblers. In some instances, such as the building of a car, hundreds of assemblers work on a single product; in others, such as the assembly of a toy doll, a single assembler may be responsible for each product. Assembly work varies from simple, repetitive jobs that are relatively easy to learn to those requiring great precision and many months of experience and training. Precision assemblers are the highly experienced and trained workers who assemble complicated products.
The work of precision assemblers requires a high degree of accuracy. Workers must be able to interpret detailed specifications and instructions and apply independent judgment. Some experienced assemblers work with engineers and technicians, assembling prototypes or test products. Precision assemblers involved in product development must know how to read and interpret engineering specifications from text, drawings, and computer-aided drafting systems, and how to use a variety of tools and precision measuring instruments.
Precision assemblers may work on subassemblies or the final assembly of finished products or components of a vast array of products. For example, precision electrical and electronic equipment assemblers put together or modify prototypes or final assemblies of items such as missile control systems, radio or test equipment, computers, machine-tool numerical controls, radar, sonar, telemetering systems, and appliances. Precision electromechanical equipment assemblers prepare and test equipment or devices such as dynamometers, ejection seat mechanisms, magnetic drums, and tape drives. Precision machine builders construct, assemble, or rebuild engines and turbines, and office, agricultural, construction, oil field, rolling mill, textile, woodworking, paper, printing, and food wrapping machinery. Precision aircraft assemblers put together and install parts of airplanes, space vehicles, or missiles, such as wings or landing gear. Precision structural metal fitters align and fit structural metal parts according to detailed specifications prior to welding or riveting.
The manufacturing process is changing. Flexible manufacturing systems, which include the manufacturing applications of robotics, computers, programmable motion control, and various sensing technologies, are changing the way goods are made and affecting the jobs of those who make them. Precision assemblers have had to learn to use these machines and adapt to changes in work processes. The advent of cellular manufacturing in American firms, for example, has meant that the assembly line is more likely to be composed of "cells" that place a premium on communication and teamwork. As the United States manufacturing sector continues to evolve in the face of growing international competition, the nature of precision assembly will change along with it.
The conditions under which precision assemblers work depend on the manufacturing plant where they are employed. Electronics assemblers sit at tables in rooms that are clean, well lighted, and free from dust. Assemblers of aircraft and industrial machinery, however, usually come in contact with oil and grease, and their working areas may be quite noisy. They also may have to lift and fit heavy objects.
Most full-time assemblers work a standard 40-hour week, although overtime is fairly common. Work schedules of assemblers may vary at plants with more than one shift. In some plants, workers can accept or reject a certain job on a given shift, usually in order of seniority.
Virtually all of the 324,000 precision assembler jobs in 1994 were in plants that manufacture durable goods. One-third of all jobs involved assembly of electronic and electrical machinery, equipment, and supplies, including electrical switches, welding equipment, electric motors, lighting equipment, household appliances, and radios and television sets. Nearly one-quarter of all jobs involved assembly of industrial machinerydiesel engines, steam turbine generators, farm tractors, mining and construction machinery, and office machines. Other industries employing many precision assemblers were transportation equipment (aircraft, autos, trucks, and buses) and instruments manufacturing.
The following tabulation lists the wage and salary employment of precision assemblers in 1994 by industry.
Electronic and other electrical equipment manufacturing 109,000 Industrial machinery and equipment manufacturing 81,000 Transportation equipment manufacturing 57,000 Instruments and related products manufacturing 57,000 Fabricated metal products manufacturing 15,000 All other industries 5,000
Precision assemblers often are promoted from the ranks of workers in less skilled jobs in the same firm. Sometimes, outside applicants may be hired if they possess suitable experience. The ability to do accurate work at a rapid pace is a key job requirement. A high school diploma is helpful but usually is not required.
For some precision assembly jobs, applicants need specialized training. For example, employers may require that applicants for electrical or electronic assembler jobs be technical school graduates or have equivalent military training.
Good eyesight, with or without glasses, is required for assemblers who work with small parts. In plants that make electrical and electronic products, which may contain many different colored wires, applicants often are tested for color vision.
As precision assemblers become more experienced, they may progress to jobs that require more skill and be given more responsibility. Experienced assemblers who have learned many assembly operations and understand the construction of a product may become product repairers. These workers fix assembled articles that operators or inspectors have identified as defective. Assemblers also can advance to quality control jobs or be promoted to supervisor. In some firms, assemblers can become trainees for one of the skilled trades. Those with a background in math, science, and computers may advance to programmers or operators of more highly automated production equipment.
Employment of precision assemblers is expected to decline through the year 2005, as increasing automation and internationalization of production will offset any increase in employment that would have resulted from industrial growth. As manufacturing firms strive for greater precision and productivity, jobs that can be performed more economically or more accurately by automated equipment will be upgraded or will disappear. Recent advancements have made robotics more applicable and affordable for manufacturing firms. The introduction of robots in these plants should continue to grow in coming years, raising the productivity of assembly workers and adversely affecting their employment.
The effects of automation will be felt more acutely in some industries than in others. Flexible manufacturing systems are expensive, and a large volume of repetitive work is required to justify their purchase. Also, where the assembly parts involved are irregular in size or location, new technology is only now beginning to make inroads. For example, much precision assembly in the aerospace industry is done in hard-to-reach locations unsuited for robotsinside airplane fuselages or gear boxes, for exampleand replacement of these workers by automated processes will be slower and less comprehensive than replacement of other workers such as welders and painters. On the other hand, automation will continue to make more inroads in the precision assembly of electronic goods, where a third of these workers are employed.
An alternative to automation for many firms is sending their subassembly or component production functions to countries where labor costs are lower. This growing internationalization of production will be promoted by more liberal trade and investment. Although there will be some growth in exports of goods assembled in the United States as a result of this freer trade environment, growing imports and decisions by American corporations to relocate assembly in other nations will, on balance, lead to employment reductions for precision assemblers.
Despite the expected decline in employment, job openings will still arise as workers transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Moreover, the need for precision, independent judgment, and specialized knowledge will ensure the continued employment of many precision assemblers.
Earnings information is somewhat limited for precision assemblers. Full-time workers who assemble electrical and electronic equipment had median weekly earnings of about $330 in 1994. Most earned between $260 and $430; the lowest 10 percent earned less than $210 a week while the highest 10 percent earned over $590. In addition to earnings, most precision assemblers receive typical benefits such as health and life insurance, a pension plan, paid vacation, and sick leave.
Many precision assemblers are members of labor unions. These unions include the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America; the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the United Steelworkers.
Other occupations that involve operating machines and tools and assembling products include welders, ophthalmic laboratory technicians, and machine operators.
Information about employment opportunities for assemblers is available from local offices of the State employment service and from locals of the unions mentioned earlier.
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