If this country wants to bring back high-tech manufacturing jobs it needs to do a lot more than taxing iPhones made in China. President Trumps’ tweet to that effect is far from his worst, but it’s about as ignorant as many we’ve seen. But it’s also an opinion that’s been expressed by others, often with good intentions to bring back manufacturing jobs to this country. And like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, that sentiment is not necessarily wrong. We have lost many high paying manufacturing jobs, and we should look at what it would take to bring them back. Too many of our citizens are underperforming in service jobs and struggling to make a minimum wage. Underemployment is a serious issue.
Having designed and built scores of consumer tech products in this country, beginning in the seventies all the way into the nineties, I’ve seen and participated in bringing more and more products to Asia, and continue to do so. I was instrumental in the shift of building products for Polaroid and Apple from this country to Asia, specifically in Japan, Taiwan, and China.
Our politicians seem to show about as much understanding of this issue as they do of other technologies. They simplify the cause and solution to a few tweets. If they really do want to bring back manufacturing jobs, tariffs are not the solution.
What is the answer? Here’s what I’d tell the politicians to do:
Understand why products are being made in Asia. Spend some time learning why China is such an attractive place to design and build them. Read this classic and timeless article by James Fallows from The Atlantic Monthly, China Makes, the World Takes. You’ll learn that U.S. companies build products there because of talent, speed, infrastructure, and cost. While cost is an important consideration, it’s no longer the primary reason.
The fact that China has become the manufacturer to the world didn’t happen without an immense commitment and foresight. Both national and local governments provided incentives and billions of dollars in investments to create the infrastructure that enabled it to happen. They built industrial parks, highways, bullet trains, libraries, high-speed networks, colleges, hospitals, and airports. They cleared the trees, tilled the fields, planted the seeds, and nurtured the growth that allowed thousands of factories to blossom, skills to be developed and millions of jobs to be created.
During the decades that it was occurring, our government stood by and did nothing. We failed and continue to fail to develop our infrastructure, encourage new development centers, and invest in new technologies. Just one tiny example: the U.S. ranks 28th in the world in mobile internet speeds behind Greece. When there is an initiative, it’s usually boneheaded, such a bringing back coal mines.
And we continue to do nothing. While being the manufacturing center for the electronics industry may have passed us by, we still can do with green technologies what China has done with computers and cell phones. While our governing party denies climate change and even questions science, the Chinese government is fast becoming the world’s center of solar technology and electric cars. By their mandating the move to clean energy to address the environment, they’ve incentivized the building of factories and the manufacturing jobs to build cars, build solar panels, windmills, batteries, and some products yet to be invented. Right before our eyes, they’re repeating what they’ve done with electronics manufacturing and creating new centers of manufacturing for the world, this time for green technologies. Like decades ago, they’re able to see the future and are investing to dominate.
So I’d tell our government if they’re serious about bringing manufacturing jobs back to this country, it’s not going to happen with tariffs or coal mines. But it could happen by looking ahead and seeing where the jobs will be created. Stop denying science, embrace it, support it and invest in the future. That’s the most effective ways to bring back manufacturing jobs to the United States.