One of the central themes of last year’s presidential election was the loss of American jobs to overseas locations. The common refrain is that the United States no longer manufactures many products and that American companies are shipping jobs out of the country en masse.
The issue, however, is more complex than can be explained in a Donald Trump tweet-storm, and it is not nearly as dire as campaigning politicians would like the public to believe. A report last year determined that the United States has the world’s second-most competitive manufacturing economy, behind China. Most important, according to Fortune magazine, global executives predict that by 2020, the United States will surpass China on that list.
All of this was evident in a recent article by Columbian reporter Troy Brynelson, who noted that the number of manufacturing jobs in Clark County had climbed to 13,400 by last November, nearly reaching the pre-recession total of 13,700 in 2008. This is significant for the local economy, with manufacturing jobs paying an average of $55,591 compared with the countywide average of $47,420 for all jobs.
For decades, manufacturing has been a harbinger of the state of the national economy. It once was possible for somebody without a college education to land a job that would be there for the entirety of their working life, providing secure employment along with a comfortable retirement. For a variety of reasons, such jobs now are scarce. Global competition has left few private companies offering pensions, and millions of jobs have fled to countries where manufacturers benefit from cheap labor and lax regulations. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the United States lost 2.4 million manufacturing jobs to China alone from 2001 to 2013.
But, says nonprofit advocacy group the Reshoring Initiative, in 2015, the U.S. economy added nearly as many jobs through reshoring and foreign investment as it lost to offshoring. As USA Today reported in April 2016: “Some of the largest U.S.-based companies, likely for both public relations and practical reasons, have begun building factories domestically for operations that would likely have gone overseas a few years ago.” The article noted that rising labor costs in China and rising costs to ship products have contributed to the reversal in the trend.
Meanwhile, automation has long contributed to the loss of manufacturing jobs. With many jobs now handled by robots, the fact is that manufacturing employment numbers in the United States never will return to the levels of decades past — no matterhow many companies build factories here.
Still, steps should be taken to bolster the manufacturing sector as much as possible. In this regard, the most compelling factor is the education of workers to have the skills desired by the companies that make things. An educational system for the 21st century will require technical education for workers who can prosper in the factories of the future. An adequate work force will encourage manufacturers to remain in this country and is the surest way to strengthen the economy in the long run.
Manufacturing, undoubtedly, must continue to be a bedrock of the American economy. And while the state of the sector is not nearly as desperate as some would have us believe, there still is room for improvement. Providing qualified workers will be the most effective way to ensure that America does, indeed, continue to make things and make them well.