Reuters

A look at the 8.2 million Americans who work in manufacturing of all sorts.

Manufacturing is back, at least as a talking point.

President Barack Obama has been making an election-year case for a "built-to-last" economic strategy centered on American manufacturing. A recent Brookings Institution report argues that manufacturing is a powerful engine of exports, innovation, and high-wage jobs. In a feature story in the New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson extols the resurgence of craft manufacturing in everything from high-tech precision parts for military helicopters and guided missiles to new herb mustards, all-natural beef jerky, and artisanal pickles. "Instead of rolling our eyes at self-conscious Brooklyn hipsters pickling everything in sight," Davidson writes, "we might look to them as guides to the future of the American economy."

Before we get too excited, I thought it might useful to put some actual numbers on the table. The chart below, by Michelle Hopgood of the Martin Prosperity Institute, outlines which manufacturing fields are most prevalent based on detailed data on production occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To save space, we have grouped some of these categories together and also shortened some of the occupational titles.

(Click the graphic for a larger image)


Manufacturing work is important. We should applaud the men and women who do it, and do our best to make it better, more engaging, and higher paying. The best manufacturing jobs today look more like knowledge jobs, involving high levels of analytical and social intelligence skill such as team building and developing others.  

But manufacturing will not provide a viable economic future, at least not by itself. 

For starters, pay for productions workers is below the national average. Their average pay is $33,700 per year, or $16.24 per hour. That compares to an average of $44,410 across all jobs, or $21.35 per hour.

Even more telling: some manufacturing industries pay much better than others. The 66,530 tool and die makers or the 36,200 aircraft assemblers have great jobs earning - $48,710 and $45,230, respectively. But the nearly 150,000 sewing machine operators average just $22,630 a year, or $10.88 per hour.

The number of manufacturing jobs is also falling quickly, despite the government's best efforts. Roughly 8.2 million American workers are employed in production jobs. This does not count the 408,000 Americans who work in fishing, forestry, and farming occupations. Add them in and it brings the total to 8.6 million workers, roughly 6.5 percent of America’s total labor force of roughly 127 million. That’s down from roughly a third of the workforce in 1950. And it's projected to decline further, to about 5 percent, by 2020.

The decline in production workers mirrors the decline of agriculture over the course of the 20th century. But it may be even swifter. A century ago, roughly 37 percent of Americans worked on farms. This declined to just slightly more than one in five workers by 1930 and 17 percent of the workforce by 1940, a period of crisis and economic resetting analogous to the current one. More than one in 10 Americans were still employed in agriculture in 1950. It was not until 1960 that the share of workers in agriculture hit 6 percent, a level similar to the share of production workers today. Since that time, the share of Americans employed in agriculture has fallen to a fraction of one percent.

Of course, the United States still produces a huge amount of food, but we do it far more efficiently and with far fewer people. Similarly, America still makes a lot of manufactured stuff, including a great deal of advanced and artisanal products, but we also do that more productively and with far fewer people. Trying to rebuild the U.S. economy around manufacturing today is the historical equivalent of trying to build the 20th century American economy around farms. 

Top image: Reuters/Carlos Barria

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