Too little, too late? Factory jobs making comeback

Jan. 27, 2012 at 7:44 AM ET

John Schoen, /
Manufacturing accounts for 9 percent of the U.S. workforce, compared with 28 percent in 1960 and 12 percent just a decade ago.

President Barack Obama is on the road this week touting a plan to bring jobs back to the United States, in part by bolstering manufacturing here.

It’s no secret that’s a tough challenge.

The United States has lately seen an increase in manufacturing jobs, something Obama noted in his State of the Union address Tuesday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 330,000 manufacturing jobs have been created over the past two years, bringing the total to nearly 11.8 million as of December.

Still, that is a nearly 2 million short of the 13.7 million manufacturing jobs that existed when the economy went into recession in December 2007. And it’s far fewer than in the late 1970s, when more than 19 million Americans -- out of a much smaller work force -- were employed in manufacturing, which was seen as a key path to a middle-class life.

Manufacturing may be bouncing back, but it is returning in a far different form. The recession washed out many inefficent companies, leaving behind operations that even leaner and more highly automated. That means they can make do with fewer workers even as they increase production.

As a recent series of stories in The New York Times has highlighted, successful companies like Apple have prospered largely by mastering a global supply chain that depends on sending work overseas to take advantage of low-cost labor.

Obama is hoping that tax breaks and other incentives will help encourage manufacturers to keep jobs here, or even bring some back. Time will tell whether that is true.


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