U.S. manufacturing may depend on automation to survive and prosper

Can this sector be saved? We often hear sentiments like: “Does America still produce anything?” and “The good jobs in manufacturing have all gone.” There is nostalgia for the good old days when there were plentiful well-paid jobs in manufacturing. And there is anger that successive U.S. administrations of both parties have negotiated trade deals, notably NAFTA and the admission of China into the World Trade Organization, that have undercut America’s manufacturing base.

Those on the right suggest that if burdensome regulations were lifted, this would fire up a new era of manufacturing prowess. On the left, it is claimed that trade agreements are to blame and, at the very least, we should not sign any more of them. Expanding union power and recruiting are another favorite solution. Despite his position on the right, Donald Trump has joined those on the left blaming China for manufacturing’s problems.

What is the real story and what needs to be done to save this sector? The biggest factor transforming manufacturing has been technology; and technology will largely determine its future.

Disappearing jobs

Employment in the manufacturing sector declined slowly through the 1980s and 1990s, but since 2000, the decline has been much faster falling by over 6 million workers between 2000 and 2010. There were hopes that manufacturing jobs would regain much of their lost ground once the recession ended, but the number of jobs has climbed by less than a million in the recovery so far and employment has been essentially flat since the first quarter of 2015. Manufacturing used to be a road to the middle class for millions of workers with just a high school education, but that road is much narrower today—more like a footpath. In manufacturing’s prime, although not all jobs were good jobs, many were well paid and offered excellent fringe benefits. Now there are many fewer of these.

Sustained but slow output growth

The real output of the manufacturing sector from 2000 to the present gives a somewhat more optimistic view of the sector, with output showing a positive trend growth, with sharp cyclical downturns. There was a peak of manufacturing production in 2000 with the boom in technology goods, most of which were still being produced in the U.S. But despite the technology bust and the shift of much of high-tech manufacturing overseas, real output in the sector in 2007 was still nearly 11 percent higher than its peak in 2000.

Production fell in the Great Recession at a breathtaking pace, dropping by 24 percent starting in Q3 2008. Manufacturing companies were hit by a bomb that wiped out a quarter of their output. Consumers were scared and postponed the purchase of anything they did not need right away. The production of durable goods, like cars and appliances, fell even more than the total. Unlike employment in the sector, output has reclaimed it previous peak and, by the third quarter of 2015, was 3 percent above that peak. The auto industry has recovered particularly strongly. While manufacturing output growth is not breaking any speed records, it is positive.

Understanding the pattern

The explanation for the jobs picture is not simple, but the Cliff Notes version is as follows: manufacturing employment has been declining as a share of total economy-wide employment for 50 years or more—a pattern that holds for all advanced economies, even Germany, a country known for its manufacturing strength. The most important reason for U.S. manufacturing job loss is that the overall economy is not creating jobs the way it once did, especially in the business sector. This conclusion probably comes as a surprise to most Americans who believe that international trade, and trade with China in particular, is the key reason for the loss of jobs. In reality, trade is a factor in manufacturing weakness, but not the most important one.

The most important reason for U.S. manufacturing job loss is that the overall economy is not creating jobs the way it once did, especially in the business sector.

The existence of our large manufacturing trade deficit with Asia means output and employment in the sector are smaller than they would be with balanced trade. Germany, as noted, has seen manufacturing employment declines also, but the size of their manufacturing sector is larger than ours, running huge trade surplus. In addition, right now that there is global economic weakness that has caused a shift of financial capital into the U. S. looking for safety, raising the value of the dollar and thus hurting our exports. In the next few years, it is unlikely that the U.S. trade deficit will improve—and it may well worsen.

Even though it will not spark a jobs revival, manufacturing is still crucial for the future of the U.S. economy, remaining a center for innovation and productivity growth and if the U.S. trade deficit is to be substantially reduced, then manufacturing must become more competitive. The services sector runs a small trade surplus and new technologies are eliminating our energy trade deficit. Nevertheless a substantial expansion of manufactured exports is needed if there is to be overall trade balance.

Disruptive innovation in manufacturing

The manufacturing sector is still very much alive and reports of its demise are not just premature but wrong. If we want to encourage the development of a robust competitive manufacturing sector, industry leaders and policymakers must embrace new technologies. The sector will be revived not by blocking new technologies with restrictive labor practices or over-regulation but by installing them—even if that means putting robots in place instead of workers. To speed the technology revolution, however, help must be provided to those whose jobs are displaced. If they end up as long-term unemployed, or in dead-end or low-wage jobs, then not only do these workers lose out but also the benefits to society of the technology investment and the productivity increase are lost.

The manufacturing sector performs 69 percent of all the business R&D in the U.S. which is powering a revolution that will drive growth not only in manufacturing but also in the broader economy as well. The manufacturing revolution can be described by three key developments:

  1. In the internet of things, sensors are embedded in machines, transmitting information that allows them to work together and report impending maintenance problems before there is a breakdown.
  2. Advanced manufacturing includes 3-D printing, new materials and the “digital thread” which connects suppliers to the factory and the factory to customers; it breaks down economies of scale allowing new competitors to enter; and it enhances speed and flexibility.
  3. Distributed innovation allows crowdsourcing is used to find radical solutions to technical challenges much more quickly and cheaply than with traditional R&D.

In a June 2015 Fortune 500 survey, 72 percent of CEOs reported their biggest challenge is that technology is changing fast, naming it as their number one challenge. That new technology churn is especially acute in manufacturing. The revolution is placing heavy demands on managers who must adapt their businesses to become software companies, big data companies, and even media companies (as they develop a web presence). Value and profit in manufacturing is shifting to digital assets. The gap between current practice and what it takes to be good at these skills is wide for many manufacturers, particularly in their ability to find the talent they need to transform their organizations.

Recent OECD analysis highlighted the large gap between best-practice companies and average companies. Although the gap is smaller in manufacturing than in services because of the heightened level of global competition in manufacturing, it is a sign that manufacturers must learn how to take advantage of new technologies quickly or be driven out of business.

Closing the trade deficit

A glaring weakness of U.S. manufacturing is its international trade performance. Chronic trade deficits have contributed to the sector’s job losses and have required large-scale foreign borrowing that has made us a net debtor to the rest of the world — to the tune of nearly $7 trillion by the end of 2014. Running up endless foreign debts is a disservice to our children and was one source of the instability that led to the financial crisis. America should try to regain its balance as a global competitor and that means, at the least, reducing the manufacturing trade deficit. Achieving a significant reduction in the trade deficit will be a major task, including new investment and an adjustment of today’s overvalued dollar.

The technology revolution provides an opportunity, making it profitable to manufacture in the U.S. using highly automated methods. Production can be brought home, but it won’t bring back a lot of the lost jobs. Although the revolution in manufacturing is underway and its fate is largely in the hands of the private sector, the policy environment can help speed it up and make sure the broad economy benefits.

First, policymakers must accept that trying to bring back the old days and old jobs is a mistake. Continuing to chase yesterday’s goals isn’t productive, and at this point it only puts off the inevitable. Prioritizing competitiveness, innovativeness, and the U.S. trade position over jobs could be politically difficult, however, so policymakers should look for ways to help workers who lose jobs and communities that are hard hit. Government training programs have a weak track record, but if companies do the training or partner with community colleges, then the outcomes are better. Training vouchers and wage insurance for displaced workers can help them start new careers that will mostly be in the service sector where workers with the right skills can find good jobs, not just dead-end ones.

Second, a vital part of the new manufacturing is the ecosystem around large companies. There were 50,000 fewer manufacturing firms in 2010 than in 2000, with most of the decline among smaller firms. Some of that was inevitable as the sector downsized, but it creates a problem because as large firms transition to the new manufacturing, they rely on small local firms to provide the skills and even the technologies they do not have in-house. The private sector has the biggest stake in developing the ecosystems it needs, but government can and has helped, particularly at the state and local level. Sometimes infrastructure investment is needed, land can be set aside, mentoring programs can be established for young firms, help can be given in finding funding, and simplified and expedited permitting processes instituted.

It is hard to let go of old ways of thinking. Policymakers have been trying for years to restore the number of manufacturing jobs, but that is not an achievable goal. Yes manufacturing matters; it is a powerhouse of innovation for our economy and a vital source of competitiveness. There will still be good jobs in manufacturing but it is no longer a conveyor belt to the middle class. Policymakers need to focus on speeding up the manufacturing revolution, funding basic science and engineering, and ensuring that tech talent and best-practice companies want to locate in the United States.