U.S. Manufacturing Growth Continues, but Jobs Are Trailing

Published by H. Blair Kincer on Thursday, December 15, 2016 - 12:00am

President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of revitalizing the United States manufacturing industry, something that is viewed nationally as a point of pride and concern. Whether Trump will be successful is an open question, but the issue of manufacturing employment is likely to remain at the forefront of national and political discussions in upcoming legislative terms.

What’s not in question is that the significance of the U.S. role in global manufacturing is increasing in the 21st century: America is ascendant in manufacturing.

Output over Employment

For the past 40 years, the U.S. contribution to global manufacturing output remained constant at approximately 21 percent of overall world manufacturing output. However, American manufacturing employment declined significantly over this same period. The divergence between output and employment is the result of advancements in robotics and materials science that increased productivity, transforming manufacturing from a relatively labor-intensive industry to a much more capital-intensive industry. Another factor that contributed to the decline in U.S. manufacturing employment is the outsourcing of production by American companies that shifted operations overseas, where labor costs are lower. The following graph illustrates the divergence between manufacturing output and employment. Note that shaded areas indicate recessionary periods.


Blog Graph How Employment and Output Have Changed in the Manufacturing Sector
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After 2010, U.S. manufacturing employment began to increase for the first time in more than a decade, marking a new era. Labor economists pointed to the relatively balanced costs of labor across the world as a leading factor. Before the rapid expansion and refinement of technological capabilities in the late 1990s and the accelerated pace of globalization that accompanied it, foreign countries benefited from a comparative advantage in manufacturing by leveraging low labor costs. As global markets became more integrated over time, the foreign labor cost advantage eroded significantly. Furthermore, the United States enjoys relatively low costs for capital, raw materials and transportation. Significantly, the U.S. became the world’s largest producer of oil in late 2014, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia and giving domestic manufacturers privileged access to this fundamental driver of growth.

U.S. Moving Up in Competitiveness

While productivity enhancements dislocated many American workers, those enhancements also increased the competitiveness of American manufacturing exports in the global marketplace. The accounting firm Deloitte publishes a Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index, which ranks 40 nations based on a number of factors including labor cost/productivity, education, infrastructure, supplier networks, intellectual property protections and regulatory/environmental requirements. In the 2016 version of this report, the U.S. ranked second behind China and ahead of Germany. The same report projects that by 2020 the U.S. will overtake China to become the world’s most desirable country for manufacturing businesses. In particular, the increasingly vital role of proprietary and complex technology in production processes has raised the appeal of countries that provide strong intellectual property protection and educated work forces, rather than the lowest labor costs. This new dynamic tilted the advantage back toward developed nations, which tend to feature superior legal protections and skilled labor forces. The following tables illustrate the Deloitte rankings for 2016 and 2020 (projected).


Blog Chart U.S. Moving Up in Competitiveness
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Where the Jobs Go

For the purposes of analyzing impact upon multifamily housing, we focus more on job creation. The American manufacturing jobs lost over the preceding decades generally correlate with simple products such as clothing and toys. By contrast, most manufacturing employment gains have been in advanced industries such as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, aircraft and heavy machinery. The factors influencing domestic investment patterns are similar to the drivers of international investment. In particular, American manufacturers are likely to invest in jurisdictions featuring educated labor forces, competitive tax rates, limited regulation and proximity to transportation networks. This is evident in areas such as Nevada and the American Southwest, where firms such as Tesla have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new plant and production facilities. The following table details employment growth since 2001 in the manufacturing industry versus all industries.


Blog Chart Comparing National Employment Trends
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As illustrated, employment in the manufacturing sector began to increase in 2011, marking a reversal in a decades-long trend of declines. However, the growth rate of manufacturing employment has trailed overall employment growth. The decline of manufacturing employment likely reflects a natural economic process experienced by many industries in previous eras.

Under President Trump, we can expect recent employment growth trends in manufacturing to continue. Whether it can increase to the point of being a “revitalization”–which likely requires job growth surpassing other industries–remains to be seen.