But advocates think employment decline — driven by technology, consolidation, closures and offshoring — isn't inevitable. The nonprofit Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland is trying to organize employers and local officials to get the sector growing again.
First step: reminding local officials that manufacturing, which employs 111,000 in the state directly and more indirectly, is not dead.
State Sen. Kathy Klausmeier toured a printing company in White Marsh on Friday, in the first of what manufacturing institute leaders hope will be many field trips by Maryland politicians. It was a preaching-to-the-choir morning — Klausmeier sits on the institute's board — but organizers also intend to make connections with legislators who don't know much about manufacturing.
The industry's future isn't the only thing at stake, said Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland.
"One of America's big problems right now is the decline of middle-class America, which corresponds very closely with a significant decline in manufacturing jobs," he said. "We can create more manufacturing. We've just got to have an alignment of legislators, economic development and the private sector, all in agreement on a path."
It won't be easy to stop the job loss, let alone reverse it. Maryland is suffering an "ongoing deconstruction of the supply chain" built up around manufacturers, Baltimore economist Anirban Basu said.
A recent example is the ripple effect from the Sparrows Point steel mill, idled and sold to a redevelopment firm and liquidator this summer after owner RG Steel sped into bankruptcy. The mill's suppliers began laying off, too. A nearby steel processing plant announced it would close.
"We are swimming upstream right now as it relates to manufacturing," said Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, an economic and policy consulting firm. "There have been states where manufacturing has undergone significant transformation and where the number of jobs is growing rapidly, including auto-centric states like Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Maryland has not had that kind of turnaround story."
The United States added manufacturing jobs in the last two years after a dozen straight years of losses, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures. The last time Maryland went 12 months without shedding manufacturing jobs was in 2000.
But Basu doesn't think the situation is hopeless. The key, he believes, is translating the port of Baltimore's "resurgence" into new manufacturing jobs. Making more products in Maryland and exporting them to the wider world would be good for the state and the nation, which badly needs to reduce its trade deficit, Basu said.
At H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., a family-owned printing company that opened in 1919, a small group gathered Friday to talk about challenges and opportunities in manufacturing. Klausmeier, a Democrat whose Baltimore County district includes the business, assured the Roebuck leaders that people are starting to pay attention to the sector again.
"You're hearing about 'Made in the USA,' 'Made in Maryland,' " she said.
Galiazzo suggested a scavenger hunt: Which stores are carrying these products? The group, which included a General Motors official and a specialist from Baltimore County's economic development agency, also brainstormed ways to better prepare high school students for entry-level jobs in the sector.
Then they left the quiet conference room to see manufacturing at work. Roebuck's machines roared, spitting out newly inked publications at a rapid clip. Employees checked the results, moved product, monitored the presses.
The way the work gets done is a sea change from 10 or 15 years ago, said President Charles M. Roebuck III, the fourth generation of his family to run the business.
Better technology makes the business more efficient, allowing it to do at least twice the amount of work with the same number of people — about 40. That's critical to surviving in a highly competitive industry that's global rather than local, he said.
Though the company is small, its jobs are typical of manufacturing. They come with health benefits and a 401(k) retirement plan. An entry-level worker hefting product around the building might start at $9 or $10 an hour, but employees who work their way up the ladder earn $50,000 or more, Roebuck said — no college degree required.
He was delighted to play tour guide last week.
"The products that we make are ubiquitous," Roebuck said. "They're part of society, but nobody probably thinks about where they come from. So it's exciting for us to be able to show that off a little bit."
Galiazzo, with the manufacturing institute, has been beating the drum for the sector for years now. But he's optimistic that the time is finally ripe, both because people are worried about the state of the middle class and because new technology — such as 3-D printing — could give tiny companies a launching point into manufacturing.
So he's trying to get people talking.
And then doing.
"We cannot have an economy without manufacturing," he said.