Can Manufacturing Jobs Come Back? What We Should Learn From Apple and Foxconn

The Huffington Post

David Paul – President, Fiscal Strategies Group  –  Posted: 02/13/2012 8:30 am

Apple aficionados suffered a blow a couple of weeks ago. All of those beautiful products, it turns out, are the product of an industrial complex that is nothing if not one step removed from slave labor.

But of course there is nothing new here. Walmart has long prospered as a company that found ways to drive down the cost of stuff that Americans want. And China has long been the place where companies to go to drive down cost.

For several decades, dating back to the post World War II years, relatively unfettered access to the American consumer has been the means for pulling Asian workers out of deep poverty. Japan emerged as an industrial colossus under the tutelage of Edward Deming. The Asian tigers came next. Vietnam and Sri Lanka have nibbled around the edges, while China embraced the export-led economic development model under Deng Xiaoping.

While Apple users have been beating their breasts over the revelations of labor conditions and suicides that sullied their glass screens, the truth is that Foxconn is just the most recent incarnation of outsourced manufacturing plants — textiles and Nike shoes come to mind — where working conditions are below American standards. Read more of this post

Manufacturing’s Wake-Up Call

A new study shows how the decisions made today by goods producers and policymakers will shape U.S. competitiveness tomorrow.

Illustration by Doucin Pierre

A debate over the future of U.S. manufacturing is intensifying. Optimists point to the relatively cheap dollar and the shrinking wage gap between China and the U.S. as reasons the manufacturing sector could come back to life, boosting U.S. competitiveness and reviving the fortunes of the American middle class. Whenever production statistics in the U.S. surge, it seems to bolster that hope; as New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman put it in May 2011, “Manufacturing is one of the bright spots of a generally disappointing recovery.”

But then when disappointing economic growth indicators are released, the pessimists weigh in. They argue that the U.S. has permanently lost its manufacturing competitiveness in many sectors to China and other countries, that the sector is still declining after years of offshoring and neglect, and that it might never return to its role as the linchpin of the U.S. economy.

Both the optimists and the pessimists are partially correct. U.S. manufacturing is at a moment of truth. Currently, U.S. factories competitively produce about 75 percent of the products that the nation consumes. A series of identifiable smart actions and choices by business leaders, educators, and policymakers could lead to a robust, manufacturing-driven economic future and push that figure up to 95 percent. Alternatively, if the U.S. manufacturing sector remains neglected, its output could fall by half, meeting less than 40 percent of the nation’s demand, and U.S. manufacturing capabilities could then erode past the point of no return.

Those findings emerge from a recent sector-by-sector analysis of U.S. industrial competitiveness, along with a survey of 200 manufacturing executives and experts, conducted by Booz & Company and the University of Michigan’s Tauber Institute for Global Operations. (So researchers could best analyze the relationship between U.S. employment and the future of manufacturing, plants located in the United States were counted as American, regardless of where the company that owned them is headquartered.) The studies — which included comparisons to similar Booz & Company studies of China and Switzerland — found that the U.S. has a much more productive manufacturing base than many people think. But no single country, not even China or the U.S., can claim to be the factory of the world, in the way the United States was after World War II.

Instead, for the foreseeable future, manufacturing will largely be regional. To be sure, exports play a critical role in any strong economy, and as we’ll see, a global play (including offshoring) can be viable, especially when there are challenges at home. But for many manufacturers, economics and market dynamics increasingly suggest that they locate factories close to their major markets, including the United States. This type of region-oriented footprint is a clear way to provide adequate scale and volume, minimize transportation and logistics costs, increase market responsiveness and innovation, and customize products for the unique preferences of different regions and cultures.

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