US factories are closing. US manufacturing jobs are reappearing overseas. China’s industrial might is growing each year.
And it might seem as if the US doesn’t make world-class goods as well as some other nations.
“There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products,” US President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union policy address last week.
Yet the US remains by far the No. 1 manufacturing country. It out-produces No. 2 China by more than 40 percent. US manufacturers cranked out almost US$1.7 trillion in goods in 2009, according to the UN.
The story of US factories essentially boils down to this: They’ve managed to make more goods with fewer workers.
The US has lost almost 8 million factory jobs since manufacturing employment peaked at 19.6 million in mid-1979. US manufacturers have placed near the top of world rankings in productivity gains over the past three decades.
That higher productivity has meant a leaner manufacturing force that’s capitalized on efficiency.
“You can add more capability, but it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to hire hundreds of people,” said James Vitak, a spokesman for specialty chemical maker Ashland Inc.
The industry’s fortunes are brightening enough that US factories are finally adding jobs after years of shrinking their payrolls. Not a lot, but even a slight increase shows manufacturers are growing more confident. They added 136,000 workers last year — the first net increase since 1997.
What’s changed is that US manufacturers have abandoned products with thin profit margins, like consumer electronics, toys and shoes.
They’ve ceded that sector to China, Indonesia and other emerging nations with low labor costs.
Instead, US factories have seized upon complex and expensive goods requiring specialized labor: Industrial lathes, computer chips, fighter jets, healthcare products.
Consider Greatbatch Inc, which makes orthopedics and other medical goods. The company is expanding its manufacturing operations near Fort Wayne, Indiana. Greatbatch wanted to take advantage of a specialized workforce in northeastern Indiana, a hub of medical research and manufacturing.
“When you’re talking about medical devices, failure is not an option,” Greatbatch chief executive Thomas Hook said. “It’s a zero-mistake environment.”
“These products are customized and high-tech. They go into patients to keep them alive,” Hook added.
Hook said the US offers advantages over poorer, low-wage countries: Reliable supplies of electricity and water, decent roads. And some localities support businesses by providing infrastructure and vocational training for potential hires.
Centerline Machining & Grinding in Hobart, Wisconsin, which makes custom parts for manufacturers in the paper industry, plans to add to its staff of 26. However, it’s struggling to find the skilled tradesmen it needs for jobs paying US$18 to US$25 an hour.
Centerline chief executive Sara Dietzen laments that local vocational schools cut back training courses in recent years, having concluded that the future for manufacturing was dim. Not from her view it isn’t. For her company, output is all about speed.
“Our average customer wants a turnaround in less than three weeks,” Dietzen said. “You’re not going to get that in China.”