If you watched the coverage of the first Presidential Debate or even the first debate itself, you may have seen what people referred to as “Trump’s Good 20 Minutes” where he was able to briefly appear dominant to Clinton on two separate but closely intertwined issues. Trade and Manufacturing. Unfortunately, these two issues have continued to be noted as a major issue in our elections as both our politicians and our populace continue to ignore the emerging reality, manufacturing jobs will never be the same in the United States.
The stump speeches given by candidates about manufacturing differ from other areas. While most “issue lines” make claims about an ideas merits promises to increase the number of manufacturing jobs instead seem to make a nostalgic appear to a post-WWII 1960s America. However, although manufacturing jobs then may have had high wages, fair hours, and decent benefits while being available to individuals without a college education things were not always this way. Manufacturing was not benevolently bestowed good wages and hours by the job sector gods. Instead, manufacturing fought for it tooth and nail through the labor movement when workers put their jobs, families, and even lives on the line for better-working conditions.
These jobs didn’t last, though. Now while many politicians will claim the decline is recent and due to policies such as NAFTA and the TPP, in fact it goes back all the way to immediate post-WWII era when manufacturing jobs as a percent of total employment had a brief revival from around 30% to 33% before embarking on a long downward trend towards the less than 10% it represents today. All of this signaled a shift towards a service based economy.
The true killer is that manufacturing actually is coming back to the United States, but just not with jobs. Due to incentives for shorter supply lines and transport times many companies have begun to ‘re-shore’ their factories to the U.S. However, although the factories are coming, the jobs aren’t. That’s because the real culprit of the loss of manufacturing jobs isn’t China, Mexico or Vietnam. It's technology. New machines are more efficient, cheaper and faster than humans ever could be at many assembly line manufacturing jobs. This is why even though NAFTA is railed against by many as a “terrible deal” that “ruined the economy” most comprehensive studies found that it brought a small net benefit to the United States and that even if it did have negative effects, they were marginal.
Instead of promising to “once and for all” bring manufacturing jobs back to America, and taking endless factory photo ops politicians, and voters, should realize the reality, and move away from manufacturing as our hope for the future. Even if we were to double the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States (a feat seen by every expert as impossible) it still wouldn’t be close to being the largest source of employment in the United States or what it was at its peak. The plain fact is now we have more retail and healthcare workers than we do manufacturing jobs. Instead of harkening for a lost America built on factories lets focus more on turning jobs like working in retail or being a home health care assistant, jobs we know we have and that are growing, into jobs that you can have with dignity and raise a family on. That’s how we achieve the American Dream, not by playing to the nostalgia of a lost America that never really existed in the first place.