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America Goes Back To The Factory (And It’s A Good Thing)

Is American manufacturing making a come-back? According to Joel Kotkin, that’s what the numbers indicate. Thanks largely to the rising cost of wages in China and the discovery of cheap natural gas everywhere from Texas to New York “the U.S. industrial base has been on a powerful upswing, with employment climbing steadily since 2009…In 2011 American manufacturing continued to expand, while Germany, Japan and Brazil all weakened in this vital sector.”

This growth isn’t limited to areas which have been traditionally known for manufacturing. The fossil fuel industry is making cities like San Antonio and Oklahoma City into manufacturing powerhouses. The same is true of Seattle where the aerospace industry is booming. But the comeback isn’t excluding the Rustbelt either:

…[Milwaukee] is home to a wide array of specialized manufacturing firms ranging from machine tools to energy. Over the past year alone the region added almost 3900 heavy metal jobs and has consistently led other Great Lakes communities in job creation.

But Milwaukee is not the only rust belt rebound town. The greater Detroit area…actually added the most heavy metal jobs — more than 12,000 — than any region of the country. The area’s ranking, however, was dragged down by its legacy; greater Detroit still has lost almost 130,000 positions in the past decade.

Manufacturing is not going back to the “golden age” of the 1960s when almost any (white, male) American with a high school diploma could support a family with a manufacturing job.  It takes fewer people to make more stuff these days, thanks to automation and improved efficiency.  But manufacturing isn’t going to disappear, either — especially if upper middle class liberals stop trying to regulate it out of existence.

There are still obstacles to overcome: Growth in manufacturing is largely attributable to new discoveries of and better methods of extracting natural gas and oil. These are not the Solyndra style subsidized and government planned “green jobs” our social and cultural betters somehow assumed would drive the return of American manufacturing, but they are jobs nonetheless.

Another problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for American manufacturers to recruit skilled labor. Manufacturing has grown increasingly technical but the supply of people with the ability and energy to operate heavy machinery hasn’t increased. We’ve got to get better at helping young people who don’t much care for academics to get the training they need to cash in on the brown jobs boom.  For a lot of the millennial generation, these brown jobs are their best path to a middle class life; we need a pro-brown jobs government that sees these jobs as a blessing not an eyesore.

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  • Anthony

    “Another problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for American manufacturers to recruit skilled labor.” K-12 education – core content: reading, writing, and mathmatics taught using cognitive science research via teaching of fundamental academic skills – WRM is where we begin helping our young people for whom higher academic training has no interest (matching skilled applicants with aforementioned brown jobs).

  • Anthony

    WRM, commerce and industry generally need employee competence sans training. To that end, the attainment of jobs (manufacturing, skilled labor, etc.) may be dependent on high quality reading, mathematics, and writing skills obtained at early grades (K-8 – which are more critical than high school). Growth in this sphere will enable basic competence to inhere in all applicants….

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I would like to point out that this is the point of greatest breakdown in the Blue Model. Big Labor in private industry has been in decline for decades and is now pricipitous at the same time these jobs are making a come back. As Big Labor gets out of the way of the labor market, wages drop until businesses are profitable and jobs are created.
    As far as the recruiting of skilled labor, businesses always complain as it’s part of their negotiating position, as well as the fact that it takes time for a new hire to reach peak efficiency, even when they have experience in the same job some where else. Also, Wages are still dropping, and even businesses hate buying something, when if they had just waited 6 months they could have gotten the employee cheaper.

  • Will Forman

    The biggest obstacle to a manufacturing boom in this country is our own government. If our government were to put trade policies and tariffs in place to protect our companies and employees, manufacturing would surge back into this country from the rest of the world. Free trade is only a good thing if it is fair. The Chinese devaluation of thier currency did much more damage to our manufacturing base than big labor ever could have.

  • An Economist

    It takes time for behavior to become aligned with incentives in the economy. While spatial lock(Oil workers in the Panhandle that can’t move to North Dakota or Texas because they can sell homes that are underwater) will continue to be a source that slows economic relocation, individuals will be quick to shift to education and training that prepares them to work in the vast and growing domestic energy and industrial complex.

  • jim b

    with the bounty of natural gas and oil that have been unlocked through fracking and canada’s oil sands, there is a big opportunity to bring back a lot of chemical, fertilizer, and other natural gas intensive industries that had to leave the country when cheap gas seemed to be in permanent decline here. we have recently become a net exporter of refined oil products for the first time in decades due to increases in refining capacity and decreases in domestic gasoline consumption. bringing more crude in from canada and refining it here could further this trend (see Keystone pipeline). these types of brown jobs in producing energy its related manufacturing industries have the capability to create the middle class jobs everyone claims to want, while dealing with our current account deficit problem as well. as we are seeing with solar, it’s no different than most tech companies like apple, where a few innovators and scientists and executives get rich in the country, while the component manufacturing is low value-added and best done in low-cost countries in asia. so even if green energy were feasible green middle class blue collar jobs are not. the answer is in the old economy brown jobs, and that could be what gets us out of the recession in the next few years. somebody tell tom friedman.

  • Bob

    US manufacturing isn’t and hasn’t been dying, but US manufacturing employment has ( I toured a steel mill about a year ago, where the guy giving us the tour had worked at the mill for the past 30 years. He said that they were producing the same amount of steel as they were 30 years ago, but with a third of the workers.

    Also, “liberal” regulation didn’t kill manufacturing employment, free trade did. I don’t think its a coincidence that most of the drop in jobs came after the 90s when we started implementing free trade pacts in earnest.

  • Sothe

    This article seems to be a direct push of the propaganda being put out by the Obama administration.

    There are zero citations and no proof offered that can be verified, and a simple Google search seems to directly contradict the progressive assertions made here.

  • mommylinda

    I an optimistic that we are going to be able to turn this trend around. I love what high school students are doing now, especially in participating in robotics clubs. In those clubs, some students have to design the robot; others have to build it and keep it running. Other kids are enthusiastic supporters, organizers, and marketers. We have gone to competitions where there actually cheerleaders for these students. It is great to have somebody other than the football players get the cheerleaders.
    Well, the US needs more nerds (I tell our 2 grandsons that nerds RULE).
    If you have the opportunity to attend a FIRST Robotics compeition, please do so. They are free and loads of fun. They will also give you insight into what is going on today. If your high school does not have robotics, please ask them why not. And then volunteer to help. You will be giving lots of high school students a wonderful opportunity to explore something different that might lead to an opportunity for them when they are adults.

  • rkka

    “Growth in manufacturing is largely attributable to new discoveries of and better methods of extracting natural gas and oil.”

    And yet, global crude production hasn’t budged since 2005 despite far higher crude prices, and US crude production remains over 4 million mbbl/d below its 1970 peak, and far below US daily consumption.

    And speaking of subsidized energy jobs, do corn ethanol plants in conservative states count for that?

  • Luke Lea

    “Manufacturing is not going back to the “golden age” of the 1960s when almost any (white, male) American with a high school diploma could support a family with a manufacturing job. It takes fewer people to make more stuff these days, thanks to automation and improved efficiency.” (WRM)

    Then why couldn’t the same male support his family at the same standard working less than he used to? Other things being equal, he should be able to.

    [Answer: It takes legislation to shorten the workweek. Absent that workers get a smaller share of a bigger pie — absolutely smaller. Women enter the workforce then to help pick up the slack, forcing wages down further still. This is the rough dynamics of the situation. Throw in mass low-skilled immigration from Mexico and new competition with low-wage workers in China, and you get to where we are today. These changes are all a result of legislation, or its absence, reflecting the choices of our governing elites, who barely care about working-class Americans.]]

  • Tom Kinney

    In the 70s, during a severe shortage of teachers, student loan paybacks that could elapse based on the number of years teaching were used as an incentive to draw young people into the profession. It worked.

    The same could and should be done for our current skill deficit areas, which are numerous. While I’m never keen about handouts, this would pay back big time creating skilled American workers and subsequently more new taxpayers. (At a reduced tax rate, of course.)

    An emphasis on these incentives to encourage students to reroute career trajectories through vocational colleges would be paramount.

  • YJ Draiman for Mayor of LA

    Wake up America before It’s To Late!
    Of course in many ways it’s already too late. We allowed the textile industry to be shipped over seas and America lost hundreds of thousands of jobs to foreign countries. In the future NAFTA will quite possibly be seen as the end of America as we knew it. And before anyone starts screaming Democrats or Republicans, the Unions let me tell you it was both parties and Unions that allowed the American Textile Industry to be destroyed. And even today the political parties come up with ways to get your mind off the real issues facing America. They want you to stay sheep and blindly follow along with what ever political rhetoric they want you to. I say its time that we as American people say enough. We should demand that textile imports into America stop and that less dollars be sent to starving people over seas as long as we have hungry people here in America. And yes we do have hungry people here in America.
    We must wake up as an American people and demand that America come first before any other country. We must have our textile, steel, and automobile jobs back even if it means restricting any textile, steel, or automobile imports from coming into America. We must rebuild the American Industrial base or America as a country is finished. We must reduce government, streamline regulations, promote businesses in the United States and become energy independent.
    YJ Draiman for Mayor of LA

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