By Howard Wial @CNNMoney February 23, 2012: 5:34 AM ET
Howard Wial is a fellow for the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
At first glance, manufacturing jobs would appear to be a dying breed.
The United States lost 6 million manufacturing jobs between early 2001 and late 2009. And despite small gains during the last two years, the trend in manufacturing employment for the last 30 years has been downward.
That has led some to argue that long-term job loss in the industry is inevitable. But our research shows otherwise.
There are two common versions of the “inevitability” argument. One holds that U.S. manufacturing wages are too high to be internationally competitive. The other maintains that manufacturing job losses are the result of productivity growth. Both arguments are wrong.
High wages can’t be the culprit, because wages in U.S. manufacturing are not especially high by international standards. As of 2009, 12 European countries plus Australia had higher average manufacturing wages than the United States. Norway topped the list with an average manufacturing wage of $53.89 per hour, 60 percent above the U.S. average of $33.53.
Manufacturing: Not a magic pill for the economy
Moreover, the United States lost manufacturing jobs at a faster rate since 2000 than several countries that paid manufacturing workers even more. Among the 10 countries for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks manufacturing employment, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden both had higher manufacturing wages and lost smaller shares of their manufacturing employment than the United States between 2000 and 2010.
Nor is technology to blame. Factories have become more mechanized, so fewer workers are needed to produce the same amount of goods. If that were the end of the story, then technology-driven productivity growth would indeed reduce manufacturing employment.
But it’s not the whole story. Technology increases productivity. And when productivity grows, manufactured goods become less expensive and the market for them expands. That creates a demand for more workers, and that extra demand usually outweighs the labor-saving impact of mechanization. The result is more manufacturing jobs, not fewer.
And there is evidence that productivity wasn’t killing jobs. Between 2000 and 2007, manufacturing productivity grew at an average annual rate of 3.9 percent, nearly the same as the 4.1 percent average annual rate during the 1990s.
If productivity growth were the cause, then job losses should’ve been equally bad in the 1990s. But that wasn’t the case. The nation lost an average of only 0.2 percent of its manufacturing jobs per year during the 1990s, compared to 3.0 percent per year between 2000 and 2007.
If neither productivity growth nor high wages cost us manufacturing jobs, what did?
One likely reason is there was insufficient productivity growth in U.S. manufacturing. If productivity had grown more rapidly, American manufactured goods would have been more competitive with those of other countries.
Another likely cause was incentives for manufacturers to offshore work to low-wage countries, which accelerated after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. After China’s accession to the WTO, the U.S. trade deficit with China grew at an accelerating rate – due mainly to offshoring of manufacturing.
Manipulated currencies and artificially low wages of China and some other low-wage countries made them attractive locations for manufacturers looking to save on labor costs.
But there is hope for the future.
Both offshoring and insufficient productivity were the result of public policy choices. The United States could have reduced the incentives for manufacturers to offshore jobs by taking a harder line against China’s currency manipulation and wage suppression. It could have improved productivity growth at home by increasing rather than cutting funding the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, which helps small and medium-sized manufacturers improve performance.
Chinese wages are now growing faster than productivity and manufacturers are beginning to reconsider whether the costs of offshoring outweigh the benefits.
Funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program has increased, and other federal and state efforts to strengthen manufacturers’ performance are taking shape.
These trends are the basis for a more robust federal manufacturing policy. If we build that, the United States can stem and even reverse its losses of manufacturing jobs.