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OM in the News: Will Manufacturing Jobs Ever Return?

April 29, 2016
The production line of a lamp factory in China. Despite efforts to revive manufacturing in the U.S., economists say the chances of a recovery are slim, and developing countries face extra challenges as industry fades.

A lamp factory in China. Developing countries face extra challenges as manufacturing jobs fade.

Half a century ago, harvesting California’s 2.2 million tons of tomatoes required 45,000 workers. In the 1960s, though, scientists at U. California-Davis developed an oblong tomato that lent itself to being machine-picked. César Chavez’s United Farm Workers union was furious and made stopping mechanization its No. 1  priority. In 1980, the Carter administration declared that the federal government would no longer finance research that could lead to the “replacing of an adequate and willing work force with machines.” The freeze on research may have slowed the mechanization of California’s harvests, but 20 years later, only 5,000 workers were employed to pick a 12-million-ton crop of tomatoes.

In America’s factories, jobs are disappearing, too. Despite political rhetoric, though, the problem is not mainly globalization. Manufacturing jobs are on the decline in factories around the world, reports The New York Times (April 27, 2016). “Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount,” says Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia U.’s Nobel economist.

Will America be able to produce a manufacturing renaissance at home? “The likelihood that we will get a manufacturing recovery is close to nil,” says Stiglitz. Over the course of the 20th century, farm employment in the U.S. dropped to 2% of the work force from 41%, even as output soared. Since 1950, manufacturing’s share has shrunk from 24% to 8.5% of jobs–and is still in decline. But the shrinking of manufacturing employment is global–and a worldwide zero-sum game. Japan’s long stagnation is a consequence of a decades-long development strategy that left it overly dependent on manufacturing. What options does the U.S have? Health care, education and clean energy, to name a few.

I highly recommend you read this thoughtful article. It is a great piece to share with students as you cover Chapter 1.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why are manufacturing jobs important to any nation?
  2. What is keeping the U.S. from regaining millions of factory jobs?
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