The Rebirth of U.S. Manufacturing

Steve Wildstrom / June 5th, 2013

“The age of labor arbitrage is over,” General Electric CEO Jeff Imelt declared at the D11 conference last week.

Signs that he is right are all around us. Today, Lenovo–a Chinese company owned partly by the Chinese government–opened its first U.S. plant in Whittset, NC., (photo) where it will make ThinkPads, commercial desktops, and servers for the North American market. Motorola announced at the same D11 conference that it will manufacture its new Moto X phone in Texas. Apple also plans to return Mac manufacturing to the U.S. at a Texas facility.

What is happening is simple. For the past 25 years or so, multinational manufacturers have chased low labor costs around the world. For a long time, China seemed like the promised land with a seemingly unlimited supply of cheap workers and and business-friendly–that is to say, extremely lax, labor and environmental standards. But a funny thing happened. The supply of qualified labor turned out to be finite after all and rates are rising. And china belatedly realized that its environment, especially the air, could only absorb so much pollution before it began poisoning its people. Growth had to slow.

At the same time, advances in robotic manufacturing mean that the labor content of electronic devices is plunging making labor costs less and less of a factor in deciding where to build. But logistics costs, especially the cost of air or ocean shipping, are going up. That’s an argument to source manufacturing closer to markets. A great deal of high-tech manufacturing will remain in china, in large part because the Chinese have developed and exquisitely well tuned supply chain to keep plants stocked with components while minimizing inventory. But some will move, in many cases, to Mexico or the U.S.

The decline of labor input helps explain why a rebirth of U.S. manufacturing will not produce a surge in U.S. manufacturing employment.  Many of the U.S. manufacturing jobs that have disappeared since the 1970s did move to China, they just vanished. And the production is coming back precisely because not much expensive labor is required. The Lenovo plant. for example, will only employ 115 production workers.

Still, growth in manufacturing is a boon for the economy. The jobs it does produce tend to be better than old factory jobs, though they also require higher skills. And factories produce a lot of secondary employment–everything from construction workers to cooks and waitstaff to transport workers.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rich

    It’s been happening since forever. The advance of technology destroys some jobs but it also creates new ones with higher skill levels. Presumably this is the main reason why over time, more and more education has been required to participate in the workforce but cause and effect may run in both directions in that situation, i.e. a more educated populace may result in more highly-skilled work, too.

    Today a degree is as necessary for starting a career as a high school diploma was 60 years ago. The downside is that the demand for seats in the college classroom now exceeds the supply of available seats by at least 2:1, allowing higher education to think of itself as a business and jack up tuition rates faster than healthcare has pushed up its charges, which is a trend that I personally deplore, since it loads up 22 year olds with debts of $50,000 or higher. I just can’t call that upward spiral anything but the effect of greed in people who I thought were less avaricious.

    I’ve seen it suggested that the money for college would be better spent on buying stock, because at the end of a career it would yield a higher return than the higher salary of a degreed employee does. But that would only work if the money invested in the stock market were never touched until retirement.

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