It’s understandable that voters are angry about trade. The U.S. has lost more than 4.5 million manufacturing jobs since NAFTA took effect in 1994. And as Eduardo Porter wrote this week, there’s mounting evidence that U.S. trade policy, particularly with China, has caused lasting harm to many American workers. But rather than play to that anger, candidates ought to be talking about ways to ensure that the service sector can fill manufacturing’s former role as a provider of dependable, decent-paying jobs.
Here’s the problem: Whether or not those manufacturing jobs could have been saved, they aren’t coming back, at least not most of them. How do we know? Because in recent years, factories have been coming back, but the jobs haven’t. Because of rising wages in China, the need for shorter supply chains and other factors, a small but growing group of companies are shifting production back to the U.S. But the factories they build here are heavily automated, employing a small fraction of the workers they would have a generation ago.
Look at the chart below: Since the recession ended in 2009, manufacturing output the value of all the goods that U.S. factories produce, adjusted for inflation has risen by more than 20 percent, because of a combination of “reshoring” and increased domestic demand. But manufacturing employment is up just 5 percent. And much of that job growth represents a rebound from the recession, not a sustainable trend. (The Washington Post’s Abha Bhattarai had a great story this week on what the much-touted “manufacturing renaissance” really looks like through the eyes of one Georgia town.)
Read more: Manufacturing Jobs Are Never Coming Back