The problem with the return of manufacturing
Charles Fishman has an upbeat cover story in the new Atlantic, talking about how manufacturing is making its way back from China to America. As the world demands an ever-more nimble manufacturing sector, able to produce smaller quantities of goods more quickly, it makes sense to make those goods here rather than be forced to spend a month shipping them over from China, especially with shipping costs rising. On top of that, Chinese manufacturing costs are rising too: inputs from labor to natural gas are getting much more expensive. (Natural gas costs four times as much in China as in the U.S., while James Fallows reports that a typical Foxconn salary is now $400 a month, three times what it was six years ago.)
Fishman’s enthusiasm for bringing the designers closer to the means of production — it really does make for much more efficient assembly lines — means that he papers over the reality of what America’s new manufacturing-sector workers are being paid:
Appliance Park’s union was so fractious in the ’70s and ’80s that the place was known as “Strike City.” That same union agreed to a two-tier wage scale in 2005—and today, 70 percent of the jobs there are on the lower tier, which starts at just over $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be.
There’s a huge difference between $13.50 per hour and $21 per hour: the latter is something you can actually live on, something you can consider to be a career. The former is not. And that’s a problem, as Adam Davidson explains: the reason that people aren’t going to college to learn the skills needed on a modern manufacturing assembly line is simply that those skills aren’t valued highly enough. Even McDonald’s, where there were noisy strikes today, looks attractive in comparison:
Isbister doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance. From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.
What we’re seeing here is the same thing that Seth Ackerman saw at Hostess: wages that are so low, the workers prefer to give up the work entirely, and take a better-paying job elsewhere.
In a piece for Salon, Jake Blumgart quoted a bakery worker who had been at the company for 14 years. “In 2005, before concessions I made $48,000, last year I made $34,000…. I would make $25,000 in five years if I took their offer. It will be hard to replace the job I had, but it will be easy to replace the job they were trying to give me.”
What we have here is a situation where a company offered a wage in the marketplace and couldn’t get any workers to accept it. Consequently, it went out of business. The word “competitive” gets thrown around a lot, often with the murkiest of meanings, but in this case there can be no doubt at all that a company, Hostess, was unable to pay a competitive wage. Ninety-two percent of its workers voted to walk out on their jobs rather than accept its wage, and they stayed out even after they were told it was the company’s final offer.
All of which means that there are two enormous problems with the story that manufacturing is returning to the US. That might be true, but (a) it’s not creating many jobs, and (b) the jobs it is creating are not the good jobs which people want to have for many years. Instead, they pay $15ish per hour, which is what teenage babysitters make in New York.
Once upon a time, in the halcyon 1950s and 1960s, a man could have a blue-collar factory job and make enough money to support a whole family. Those days are over now, but they echo still in the dreams of manufacturing returning to the U.S. The idea is that were that to happen, good jobs would magically be created. Where the reality is that manufacturing jobs are not good jobs any more: you’re better off working in retail, whether you’re in the US or in China. And you don’t need to spend unpaid years in college learning technical skills to get a retail job.
So while I’m as excited about the Internet of Things as the next guy, and I love any economy where ideas can become products with unprecedented ease, I don’t think that this is a particularly good solution to the unemployment problem. It’s better than nothing, of course. But I do get worried when The Atlantic splashes the word “COMEBACK” all over its cover: that makes this phenomenon seem much happier than in truth it is.