Over the next 100 years, manufacturers achieved huge production gains by adopting machine-fabricated, interchangeable parts. The 20th century brought the same: Breakthrough after breakthrough welled up on a factory floor, spread through an industry and rippled into other sectors.
This process of experimentation leading to widespread advances in efficiency is “one of the oldest dynamics we know of in economics,” said Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and it yields “major gains for production sectors and society.”
Muro is an unabashed booster for public policies that encourage advanced manufacturing across the United States. Like many such cheerleaders, he’s making his case these days by talking a lot about innovation and less about jobs. “Mass employment is not the fundamental reason we need a healthy and vibrant manufacturing sector,” Muro and co-author Scott Andes wrote in a blog post this month — new products and productivity are.
Touting a new Obama administration initiative to promote advanced-manufacturing programs in cities across the country, Rebecca Blank, the acting Commerce secretary, struck a similar chord.
“There are a lot of reasons to want more advanced manufacturing located in the United States beyond just job creation,” she said in an interview. “And the most important one is, advanced manufacturing is often on the cutting edge of research and development.”
It’s a counterintuitive case to make in the current economy. America has 12 million unemployed adults — people who are looking for work but can’t find a job. Lost factory employment is a huge reason why.
Despite adding a half-million jobs since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009,the U.S. factory sector employs nearly 2 million fewer people today than it did in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. University of Chicago economists recently found that declines in manufacturing employment account for half of the increase in joblessness among men without college degrees over the past 10 years.
At the same time, factory output per worker is continuing a steady upward march. Manufacturers keep getting better and better at doing more with fewer people. This makes factory production critical to the health of the economy — but not in the jobs-centered way most politicians like to frame the issue.
In both of his races for the White House, President Obama campaigned hard on the job-creation potential of expanded manufacturing. In contrast, many researchers say it’s the sector’s innovation potential — the advancements that help factories produce more with fewer workers — that could give America a new global edge.