Why Manufacturing Is Never Going to Be What It Used to Be

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Posted by: briansittley Comments: 0 0 Post Date: February 14, 2017

old_mfg_plant“Manufacturing exerts a powerful grip on politicians and policymakers in the rich world.”  So note the editors of the The Economist in a January, 2017 article on the changing face of manufacturing.  Their point is that manufacturing is central to what most national and political leaders across the world believe is what they want, and what their nations need.
Unfortunately, the sentiment gets a bit cloudy when they talk about “bringing back” the jobs of yore.  As Bruce Springsteen once noted, “those jobs are going boys, and they ain’t comin’ back.”
The truth is, as always, a bit more nuanced.
For starters, manufacturing has not really gone away.  But it also hasn’t stood idle.  Indeed, there has been plenty of change in manufacturing – it’s just gotten a lot more sophisticated.  It’s the less skilled jobs that are not going to return.
Manufacturing has long offered among the most desirable wages, and its products often tend to be exports, which make it especially desirable in political circles.  In the early part of the prior century, manufacturing brought lots of good-paying, semi- (or low-) skilled jobs.  That’s all changed, of course.  And as the Economist article points out, those changes included the advance of I.T. and the underlying ability to allow firms to unbundle the different tasks from design to assembly to sales so that “it became possible to coordinate longer and more complicated supply chains, and thus for various activities to be moved to other countries, companies or both.”
In the 1940s, one in three non-farm American jobs were in manufacturing.  Today it’s one in eleven.  Even in manufacturing-intensive Germany, it’s one in five.  Over time, as manufacturing became more productive and prices dropped, its share of GDP fell too.  Over time, more jobs moved overseas – but these were mostly low-skilled jobs, it’s worth noting.  The complicated work stayed home, while the “routine work was easily moved to poor countries,” and cheap labor.
So in a very real sense, the promise to bring jobs back rings hollow.  Low and semi-skilled jobs are not going to return to America, or the most developed nations, because they were not simply shipped abroad.  Rather, they were “destroyed by new ways of boosting productivity and reducing costs” which only served to heighten the distinction between routine labor and the rest of manufacturing.
But here’s the thing: today it is said that one-sixth of all manufacturing jobs are found in “the rich world.”  But those workers produce two-thirds of the final value of today’s manufactured goods.  Most of the low-value work shipped overseas involves final assembly that “adds little to the finish product’s value.”  For example, assembly of Apple iPads in China accounted for just 1.6% of the retail selling price.
In the U.S. the 11.5 million higher-value jobs that officially count as manufacturing jobs were, according to Brookings Institute, outnumbered by two to one by jobs in manufacturing-related services down the supply chain, after accounting for the outsourcing of accounting, logistics, HR and IT services that were once counted as “manufacturing” jobs in an earlier era.  In short: that’s a lot of manufacturing related jobs – the good ones – which we still retain.  That’s about 33 million U.S. “manufacturing” jobs, all told.
So the next time you hear someone bemoan the loss of manufacturing jobs, or herald a new era of returning jobs to America, keep in mind: the best manufacturing jobs continue to remain in the U.S. and other developed countries —  even more so when you count the related supply chain jobs.
But keeping these well paid jobs is the real and continuing task at hand.  And to see what that will take, we’ll add a few opinions, and some Economist commentary, in our next post, as we conclude this look at manufacturing today.  Stay tuned…

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