America has a self-image problem when it comes to the kinds of jobs we do. Travel to nearly any corner of the nation and you'll likely encounter people who believe Americans don't make anything anymore.
That's not true, of course, but in daily life it's often difficult to prove that we still do. Aside from a few brands of automobiles, most finished that products Americans encounter -- clothes, shoes, appliances, toys, etc. -- have labels or tags showing they were made in places far flung from U.S. shores.
It's true that the U.S. no longer makes many smaller, cheaper items, says Arthur Wheaton, an expert in labor and manufacturing at Cornell University's ILR School. Economies of scale make countries such as China a better fit for such production.
But to suggest that Americans don't make anything anymore is misleading.
"The U.S. still does a tremendous amount of manufacturing -- a tremendous amount of the high-tech manufacturing," he says. For example, the U.S. ranked No. 3 in vehicle production last year, according to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, and is the world's top builder of airplanes and other aerospace products.
Where China Now Leads
A report released earlier this year by IHS Global Insight, however, did show that the U.S. is no longer the world's largest manufacturer. After a 110-year run, China with its army of low paid workers surpassed the U.S. last year as the world's leader, when measured by total dollar value of goods sold.
The report showed that in 2010, China accounted for 19.8 percent of the world's total goods made, while the U.S. produced 19.4 percent.
Though China may have overtaken the U.S. in overall manufacturing output, it took nearly nine times the number of Chinese workers to achieve only slightly more output, IHS analyst Mark Killion noted to the Financial Times when the report was released in March. In the U.S., about 11.5 million workers are employed in manufacturing, compared to 100 million in the same sector in China.
Americans' ability to individually outproduce their Chinese counterparts is attributable to the advanced technology used in many U.S. plants, which allow a handful of U.S. workers to manufacture as much as hundreds once did.
A worker on today's assembly line "needs to know more about running a computer than they do about tightening a screw or use a wrench," Wheaton says.
The increased complexity of the manufacturing process means that many skilled workers today need to have degrees in electronics or computer science to ensure that they have the proper skills. They're also likely more stressed than previous generations.
Today's trades workers are doing harder work at a higher pace. The work may be less physically demanding, but the pressure to produce is as strong as it's ever been, Wheaton says. And it's being done "at a relatively low pay rate."
Making The American Dream
Even though today's skilled workers are better educated and able to produce more, they aren't as well compensated as their counterparts in past decades. Years of stagnant wages combined with higher costs for housing, commuting, food and other necessities means that many of today's skilled workers likely don't enjoy the same standard of living as previous generations.
For millions of workers, however, skilled trades -- and the wages they provide -- are the key to achieving the American dream. Economic factors, such as higher fuel and shipping costs, is resulting in more companies reconsidering reviving manufacturing operations rather than run the risks of importing from China.
It's a trend that's only just got underway in the U.S., but recent events, such as the tsunami that struck northeast Japan earlier this year, have shown manufacturers that there are substantial risks to producing parts and products thousands of miles away from where they will be consumed.
Last week, for example, Toyota Motor Corp. reported its first increase in monthly domestic output since the March 11 tsunami disrupted its global supply chains, The Wall Street Journal said.
It isn't only the makers of complex goods, such as vehicles, who are rethinking where to make their products. Clothing manufacturers, too, are increasingly bringing production back to the U.S. in an effort to more quickly respond to changes in ever-shifting consumer preferences, Wheaton says.
Meanwhile, other countries continue to rely on U.S. manufacturers to produce high-tech components, such as those produced at a Cummins diesel engine plant in Jamestown, N.Y., which supplies parts for engines manufactured in China.
It's in those finely made, high-tech components that America's skilled trades workers may see their brightest futures. "That's where the skilled shortage is here," Wheaton says.
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