Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

It's hard to save an industry we don't respect

A few years ago, I headed to Chicago to report out a long article on the state of America's manufacturing sector. I'd known the situation was grim -- but not that it was so unnecessarily grim. Manufacturing, I found, was caught in transition between its past glory as the provider of good, upwardly mobile, blue-collar jobs, and its future as a smaller, high-skills, high-tech industry. The problem was that the collapse of low-skill manufacturing had scared off the talent needed for high-skill manufacturing. The result was not just the inevitable loss of unskilled manufacturing jobs to China, but the preventable loss of highly skilled manufacturing jobs to Germany and other advanced economies that had done more to invest in an upmarket manufacturing sector.

I thought of this when I read Kathleen Fasanella's lament about our confused attitude toward factory jobs:

Most people think factories are terrible places, that you only work in one if you have no other options, presumably because factory workers aren't very bright. I'll spare you the revisionist semi-rant but I have spent the best years of my life in factories. On one hand we decry the erosion of our economy due to the loss of US manufacturing jobs but on the other, we don't encourage our young people to pursue careers in it because we think they're smarter than that and of course, we find it repugnant. This has got to change. We have a schizophrenic attitude about manufacturing in the US. If we're not thinking it's horrible, on the other hand, when we find domestic producers, we celebrate them as some kind of hero, that they are unusual and made of more special stuff than we are. I'm telling you I know they are not.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 31, 2010; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  Economic Policy  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Dad culture in Sweden
Next: Annoying e-mail you don't want, cont'd

Comments

Today, the American ruling class says manufacturing jobs are the past, don't matter and we shouldn't regret outsourcing them. Tomorrow, they will say the exact same thing about service sector jobs. Then they will resurrect their messiah - Ayn Rand.

Posted by: michaelh81 | August 31, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Today, the American ruling class says manufacturing jobs are the past, don't matter and we shouldn't regret outsourcing them. Tomorrow, they will say the exact same thing about service sector jobs. Then they will resurrect their messiah - Ayn Rand.

Posted by: michaelh81 | August 31, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

For pete's sake. American manufacturing output reached its height of all time just prior to the current downturn, and manufacturing employment as a percentage of the total workforce has been in steady decline since the end of WW2. "Culprit"? Technology.

Posted by: theo2709 | August 31, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

For all the conventional wisdom about the long-term intractable decline of manufacturing, commentators fail to deal with some inconvenient facts: manufacturing employment increased during the Clinton, Carter, Kennedy-Johnson and Truman years, and decreased during the GW Bush, Reagan-Bush, Nixon-Ford and Eisenhower years. Increases, always, with Democrats in office, decreases, always, with Republicans in office. Coincidence?

Posted by: urbanlegend | August 31, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

I live in the south where we have seen Calvin Klein and that bunch of American designers send American jobs overseas so they could feel good about helping the 3rd world. Sewing plants put a lot of kids through college.

I live in an area where medical supply company Baxter sent it's jobs to Mexico and elesewhere years ago. Federal Mogul 20 miles away will do the same thing the middle of September, closing a plant that has been around for about 30 years.

People still love those jobs where I live. There's no snob factor here.

It all goes back about 25 years to when I first noticed the irrationality of the stock market by going UP everytime a company shed American jobs, therefore increasing it's profitability.

Those people getting those bonuses on Wall Street are STILL too stupid to realize that if they kill all the jobs HERE, people won't be able to but the company's products. All the Chinese on earth, making nearly slave wages, can't buy them, either.

Another thing, a country that is totally dependent on another country for just about everything is just not secure or safe. Medication is just one major example of this. NO aspirin is made in the USA or Europe anymore. And, those Dr. Reddy's generics that they sell at Sam's are getting really strange in smell and taste. I'm getting ready to call the FDA about some I got the other week. I already called Dr. Reddy. He doesn't care and God knows no Walton will.

IN the USA, look at the McNeil Tylenol mess. The manufacturing business is as immoral as Wall Street.

Remember the old guy in Massachusetts who paid his workers while he rebuilt his burned shoe factory 10 - 15 years ago? He was probably the last moral businessman in the country.

Posted by: edismae | August 31, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Manufacturing isn't the long term jobs strategy.

Check out figure 2 on page 6.

In Germany, manufacturing employment (as % of total employment) fell from 36% in 1970 to 28% in 1990 and 21% in 2003 (note that German employment didn't grow from 1990-2003 so we can infer outright job losses).

In Japan, manufacturing employment fell from 26% to 17% from 1970 to 2003. In France the decline was 26% to 15%. In Canada 23% to 14%.

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/44/17/37607831.pdf

Manufacturing is wonderful, and we shouldn't discourage it, but it's not going to be a major source of American jobs in the future, any more than farming will.

Our decendants in 2050 might well lament that there are only 7 million manufacturing jobs left, compared with nearly 12 million in 2010 (nevermind manufacturing output is several times what it was in 2010), and perhaps complaining about how Pakistan and Nigeria are 'stealing our jobs' over coffee before starting their workday in a sector which might not even exist at the present time.

Posted by: justin84 | August 31, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

http://www.economist.com/sites/default/files/fredgraph.png

Posted by: theo2709 | August 31, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

"For all the conventional wisdom about the long-term intractable decline of manufacturing, commentators fail to deal with some inconvenient facts: manufacturing employment increased during the Clinton, Carter, Kennedy-Johnson and Truman years, and decreased during the GW Bush, Reagan-Bush, Nixon-Ford and Eisenhower years. Increases, always, with Democrats in office, decreases, always, with Republicans in office. Coincidence?"

Yes. We can explain the results without needing to know which party happens to hold the Presidency (and in anycase, is the President really that powerful - what of Congress - do we blame the Democratic Congress in the 1980s and late 2000s and praise the Republican Congress from 1994-2000?).

Truman gets favorable comparisons by starting during the WW demobilization and ending during the height of the Korean War.

Eisenhower has to start from the height of the Korean War and he leaves office in the midst of a recession.

Kennedy/LBJ have both an inflationary boom and war output aiding employment. Nixon starts mid-war and Ford leaves after the war is over and the Fed crushed the inflationary boom (Fed Funds from 5.5% at the start of 1973 to 13% mid 1974). The Fed then slices rates back to 4.75% by early 1976, which fuels another inflationary boom which Carter rides. Volcker finally kills it, but inflation isn't successfully slayed until 1982 because a premature easing in 1980 started to let inflation back out of the bottle. After 1982, manufacturing grew 8% through the end of Reagan's term.

Inflation started to get out of hand again at the end of the 1980s and so the Fed hiked from 5.75% to 9.75% over '88-'89 which set up the 1990-91 recession. Starting his term barely more than a year after the bottom, Clinton manages to oversee 1.9% manufacturing employment growth (total) from Jan93 to Jan01, which shows even high demand doesn't bring back manufacturing employment.

Bush started 2 months before the 1991-2001 expansion peaked, admittedly didn't see much employment growth from 03-07 and then was wiped out by the credit bubble (in part a demon of his own design).

By the way, this pattern is a bit different from what you would expect if you bought into another liberal thesis on this site lately, that the Fed uses monetary policy as a weapon against Democratic administrations.

Posted by: justin84 | August 31, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

An overly partisan rantlet:

The symbol for pollution in cartoons and such stuff is almost always a factory with smokestacks.

When a factory means "that building that spews death" to people instead of "that building that makes stuff and employs people", it's not surprising that manufacturing is suffering.

Posted by: Klug | August 31, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

It isn't jobs we need, but production. Two hundred years ago 97% of the citizens of the USA were needed to feed us all. Now we do it with only 3% of the people working on farms. But that was the result of the government protecting rights, using gold as money, and not levying income taxes at all. The first Great Depression (1929-1940) came after the FED was established. Before that, there has only been short "panics" as the economy went through quick adjustments, lasting at most two years.

Posted by: jackdoitcrawford | September 1, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Actually, there is hope for manufacturing and manufacturing employment. The U.S. can not continue a $500 to $700 billion/year trade deficit indefinitely. The only solution is to export more or import less. We will either do so of our own volition or after the $ collapses and we become a low wage country. The current plan to double exports is impossible due to foreign local competition and costs. U.S. manufacturers are, on average, at least 24% more competitive in their home market than overseas due to the costs of shipping, duty, interest, travel, etc. Accordingly, the most direct way to strengthen manufacturing and the middle class is to strengthen manufacturing by reshoring. I am quoted in the Aug 6, 2010 USATODAY article (http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/2010-08-06-manufacturing04_CV_N.htm?csp=hf ) which reviewed in detail the progress of and reasons for re-shoring: bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. We provide a free software to help OEMs make better sourcing decisions, Purchasing Fairs to help them find competitive U.S. sources and publicity to drive the re-shoring trend. The three associations mentioned are the NTMA (National Tooling and Machining Association), PMA (Precision Metalforming Association) and AMT (Association for Manufacturing Technology). The next Fair will be in Mashantucket, CT on Oct 29. See www.purchasingfair.com . Large companies bring out work that is now off-shored. Hundreds of attending U.S. shops then bid on the work. Sixty four percent of the large companies at the Irvine Fair brought work that was currently offshored.
A major reason for offshoring is faulty accounting of the comparative costs. Companies have offshored more than is even in their own short term interest. Archstone Consulting’s 2009 survey showed that 60% of manufacturers use only rudimentary methods to calculate offshored product costs and miss at least 20% of the total cost. To help the companies make better sourcing decisions we provide a free TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) Estimator that helps the large companies perform the complex calculation of the real impact of offshoring on their P&L.
For more information, see our temporary website: www.reshoringnow.com or email me: harry.moser@comcast.net.

Posted by: HarryMoser | September 1, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

After reading the title, I thought this would be about "mainstream" journalism, right JournoList? When some newspapers look to the government to help them survive, well, the writing's on the wall.

Posted by: jmcewan29 | September 1, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I say healthy American manufacturing must be part of our long term National Security strategy.

Washington must quickly adopt international economic policies and provide tax incentives to make it more attractive for companies to keep American producers viable and healthy.

I agree with HarryMosers comments and encouraged by the efforts of our trade associations that demonstrate that industry can provide solid reasons, solutions and availability to training that will sway outsourcing decision makers, educators and politicians.

Strong American manufacturing equals a strong America, in every sense of the term.

Posted by: KDahlstrom62 | September 1, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.




characters remaining

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company