I have spent most of my career involved with “manufacturing jobs,” “outsourcing,” “offshoring,” and “globalization,” so I pay a lot of attention to the political discourse on these topics. Recently, the U.S. presidential race has gotten tied up in the debate about outsourcing and offshoring of manufacturing jobs, so it seems like a good opportunity to share some professional insight with Mr. Governor and Mr. President.
First of all, why did we get so enthralled by manufacturing jobs? A new national poll by the Alliance for American Manufacturing finds that 53% of American voters believe that manufacturing is the industry “most important to the overall strength of the American economy,” and 89% favor a national strategy to support manufacturing in the U.S.
The candidates are equally concerned. President Obama has issued a “Blueprint for an America Built to Last,” which is intended to encourage companies to create manufacturing jobs in the United States. Governor Romney has promised to issue an executive order to sanction China for unfair trade practices on his first day in office.
My first thought is, “Clearly, none of these people has ever actually worked in a manufacturing plant.” My first job out of college was working in a plastic bottle manufacturing plant in Houston, where it hits 100 degrees and 10,000% humidity. The plant was not air conditioned and we worked next to 400 degree extruders. When we had a problem with condensation on the molds, they built enclosures around the equipment and they air conditioned the machines. Not the people, the machines. Welcome to your manufacturing career!
And those manufacturing jobs you want back from China? I’ve been to the Foxconn Longhua plant in Shenzhen, where they put up nets to keep people from jumping off the buildings out of despair. Most of these jobs are repetitive, low skill, low pay, with little opportunity for advancement. If this is what we want for our children, then I’ll stop putting money in my 529 right now.
But manufacturing is the heart of our economy, right? Well, no. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, post-war manufacturing employment, which as a percent of total U.S. employment peaked at only 27% of the workforce in 1953, has for the most part been steadily dropping since, to a current level of 8.4%. This is a trend that is decades old – before Obamacare or Bain Capital; before “outsourcing” existed as a term; before “Japan Inc.” or NAFTA, or any other scapegoat we hear about.
And those “good paying manufacturing jobs?” The median annual wage for manufacturing only ranks 12thout of 20 industry sectors in the United States, and changes in manufacturing wages have tracked very closely with all non-farm wages. Careercast.com issued a report this past May on the best jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. None of the top ten jobs were in manufacturing.