A Second Industrial Revolution?

Peter Goodman has a fine article in Monday’s Washington Post about the resilience and tenacity of the manufacturing sector in the United States – even in the storied ghost towns that dot the once-bustling textile regions of North Carolina.  Like my recent paper on the topic, Goodman points out that U.S. manufacturing is thriving:

The United States makes more manufactured goods today than at any time in history, as measured by the dollar value of production adjusted for inflation – three times as much as in the mid-1950s, the supposed heyday of American industry. Between 1977 and 2005, the value of American manufacturing swelled from $1.3 trillion to an all-time record $4.5 trillion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

And he reinforces a key point of my paper that has yet to penetrate the pessimistic political discourse:

With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for almost one-fourth of global manufacturing, a share that has changed little in decades. The United States is the largest manufacturing economy by far. Japan, the only serious rival for that title, has been losing ground. China has been growing but represents only about one-tenth of world manufacturing.

The major difference between my paper and Goodman’s story is that the former takes a birds-eye view of the manufacturing sector, presenting an impersonal, data-driven assessment of the state of U.S. manufacturing.  Goodman’s story focuses on a particular biotechnology company that occupies a former textile mill, producing a drug for liver ailments from a local pond weed.  The story is emblematic of the metamorphosis throughout the North Carolina and U.S. manufacturing sectors:

North Carolina encapsulates the forces remaking American manufacturing. Between 2002 and 2005, the state lost 72,000 manufacturing jobs, about three-fourths in textiles, furniture-making and electronics, according to the North Carolina Commission on Workforce Development. At the same time, the state has become a rising powerhouse in lucrative new manufacturing sectors such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and sophisticated textiles.

During the most recent decade, U.S. manufacturing has become increasingly oriented toward the middle and upper ends of the value-added spectrum.  Opportunities abound for workers with skills or the willingness and wherewithal to acquire them.  In fact, the title of the National Association of Manufacturers tenth annual Labor Day Report on the state of U.S. manufacturing is “Rising Incomes Cushion Economy,” and its subtitle is “Finding Highly Skilled Workers Remains a Challenge for Manufacturers.”  It seems to me that rising wages should make more workers willing to get the skills, and the need to find highly-skilled workers should induce manufacturers to assist on the wherewithal front.