The manufacturing boost is particularly apparent in presidential swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the sharp decline in factory jobs plunged much of the region into economic distress long before the recession hit. Now unemployment rates in these states are falling, and some are at or below the national average.
Still, the growth in manufacturing jobs amounts to little more than a drop in a leaky bucket. The new positions created over the past two years replace just one-fifth of the more than 2 million factory jobs lost during the recession, from December 2007 through June 2009.
Overall, the country has 5 million fewer manufacturing jobs now than it did in 2000, according to government statistics.
Nonetheless, the nation harbors a strong nostalgia for a robust manufacturing sector that employs large numbers of Americans. One of the most talked about ads during the Super Bowl was a “Halftime in America” spot featuring Clint Eastwood, framed by an industrial plant, touting the recovery of Chrysler and a bright manufacturing future.
As the Republican presidential race turns to manufacturing-heavy states such as Michigan and Ohio, Obama and the GOP candidates are invoking manufacturing as a way to restore middle-class prosperity.
Newt Gingrich toured a metal plant in Cleveland last week, telling workers on the shop floor that manufacturing jobs are crucial to national security.
“We have to have companies like this. You cannot be the arsenal of democracy if you don’t have an arsenal,” he said. “We very badly need to rebuild our manufacturing base so that we are competitive.”
Romney, noting that he hails from the Detroit area and that he was saddened by the steep decline in that former manufacturing stronghold, has said: “I will work to bring manufacturing and all good jobs back to America.”
Part of Romney’s plan is to be tough on nations such as China, which he has described as “stealing jobs” by keeping the value of its currency artificially low, thereby making its exports cheaper.
“Some of the nations around the world with very low labor rates have found if they artificially depreciate their currency, they can make their prices even lower. By doing so, they have displaced American manufacturers and a lot of jobs,” Romney said.
Economists call the recovery in manufacturing jobs crucial to the fortunes of the vast majority of American workers who are not college graduates, because factory jobs tend to pay better than other jobs for workers with comparable educations.
Although U.S. factories have been boosting output steadily since the recession because of strong auto sales and a continued investment in machinery, a significant gap still exists between the recent surge in corporate profits and much more modest growth in American jobs.
The fact that some of the country’s best-known multinationals do not release numbers about the jobs they have here and abroad has become a hot-button issue in Congress lately. In February, Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) introduced a bill that would require firms with more than $1 billion in revenue to report the breakdown and track the increase or decrease over the previous year.
“You’ve all heard enough about outsourcing. Well, more and more companies like Master Lock are now insourcing, deciding that if the cost of doing business here is not too much different than the cost of doing business in places like China, why not do it right here in the United State of America?” Obama told the crowd in Milwaukee. “Why not put some Americans to work?”
Staff writers Nia-Malika Henderson and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.