Last year, we lost “hardwood and softwood veneer and plywood manufacturing,” as well as “fiber, yarn and thread mills.” “Leather and allied products” got the ax the year before that, as did “directory and mailing-list publishers.” Together these minor database moves symbolize substantial shifts in the economy.
The Labor Department can’t allow any industry in the data to shrink so small that it could be used to identify a specific company, said John Stewart, supervisory economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Companies provide the BLS with detailed data on employment and wages. In exchange, the BLS goes to enormous lengths to avoid publishing corporate trade secrets.
The broad sector that includes printing has shed about a third of its jobs since the start of the Great Recession — more than every sector but clothing manufacturing, which also no longer has enough U.S. jobs to merit many lines in the database. (Commercial printing doesn’t include print newspapers, which have their own set of problems.)
Printing workers are squeezed by falling demand — Americans don’t mail as many cards or hand out as many brochures as they once did. At the same time, supply has soared as advances in commercial printing technology allow companies to churn out more goods with fewer workers.
Cathy Smith, manager of platemaking and prepress for Boxcar Press in Syracuse, N.Y., has watched printing grow ever more efficient over the decades. Boxcar, where she’s worked since 2007, keeps costs down and appeals to an audience hungry for artisanal goods by relying on “old-school” letterpress technology. They’ve nonetheless been reshaped by the digital revolution.
“When I first started working with printers, they were still getting ready for catalogues by laying them all out with films on flat boards,” Smith said. “Within five to six years, you weren’t doing all of that hands-on stuff anymore. It was all computer.”
The industry’s large players have advanced at warp speed, adopting hulking high-tech printers that can be up to 50 feet long and require little human input.
“We have a multiple-step process still because we’re using older equipment,” Smith said. “If we were to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment, that would eliminate another person.”
Many smaller printers have been unable to keep up. Workers who entered the industry decades ago as ink-stained apprentices are now choosing to retire rather than keep up with the high-tech arms race — a phenomenon reflected in the industry’s steadily shrinking jobs numbers.
And Smith sees no end in sight. “The equipment’s going to get faster and more efficient,” she said.
The Labor Department’s annual payroll data purge isn’t funereal as much as it is a fact of life. Jobs are always being created, even as old ones join “carpet and rug mills” and “small electronic appliance manufacturing” in the government’s electronic dustbin. In the case of printing, job losses have been replaced by enormous gains in Internet-related categories.
And occasionally, the Labor Department brings a new series into the world. Who can forget the moment in 2012 when “miscellaneous nondurable goods manufacturing” was born? The category includes tobacco, beverages and textile mills — all of which had been discontinued as individual series around the same time.
In earlier years, innovation-driven series such as biotechnology research also earned a seat at the table, but it’s harder to add an industry to the report than it is to subtract one. “Once you’ve put a series out there, it’s extremely hard to take back,” Stewart said.