While things have not looked this promising for U.S.
manufacturing jobs in a long while, a revolution in manufacturing
employment seems far-fetched.
To hear Michael Bink, one might believe that U.S. manufacturing is about to recapture its lost glory.
Master Lock, which has made locks in Milwaukee since 1921, has brought 100 jobs back from China over the past year and a half. And Mr. Bink, who has worked at the plant for 33 years and heads the United Auto Workers local union branch, is sure more will follow. "They are making a lot of capital investment, buying a lot of new equipment," he said. "That will create more jobs."
Master Lock's story dovetails nicely with an upturn in U.S. manufacturing employment, which has rekindled hope in a region pummeled by 30 years of job losses. Across the United States, factories have added 400,000 jobs in the past two years, the first sustained bout of growth since the 1990s, replacing about a fifth of the positions lost during the recession. Companies like Otis Elevator and General Electric are bringing home jobs once thought lost for good.
Mr. Bink's enthusiasm has echoed from the factory floor all the way to Washington. During his State of the Union Message, President Barack Obama wove Master Lock's tale of repatriated jobs into a narrative of recovery that could serve him well in November.
"We have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back," he said. "But we have to seize it."
To do so, his administration has proposed a pinata of tax breaks and incentives intended to transform the incipient movement into a new golden age for factory jobs.
Things have not looked this promising for U.S. manufacturing jobs in a long while. Rising costs in China, where the government is letting the currency gain against the dollar and wages are rising at a double-digit pace, are making it more attractive for American companies to produce at home. Expensive oil adds to the cost by pushing up the price of freight.
Yet a revolution in manufacturing employment seems far-fetched. Most of the factory jobs lost over the past three decades in the United States are gone for good. In truth, they are not even very good jobs.
Much of the anxiety about factory jobs is based on the misconception that job losses have been caused by a sclerotic manufacturing sector, unable to compete against low-cost imports. Until the recent recession clobbered the world economy, manufacturing production was actually holding its own. Real value added in manufacturing, the most precise measure of its contribution to the economy, has grown more than two thirds since its heyday in 1979, when manufacturing employed almost 20 million Americans -- 8 million more than today.
U.S. companies make a smaller share of the world's stuff, now, of course. But what else could one expect? Thirty years ago China made very little of anything. Today its factory output is almost 20 percent of world production.
What is surprising is how little the United States lost in that time. American manufacturers contribute more than a fifth to global value added.
Manufacturers are shedding jobs around the industrial world. Germany lost more than a fifth of its factory jobs from 1991 to 2007, about the same share as the United States. Japan, once a manufacturing behemoth, lost a third.
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