Industrial Insight

making it here… | January 30, 2012

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/making-it-in-america/8844/2/?single_page=true

Making It in America

In the past decade, the flow of goods emerging from U.S. factories has risen by about a third. Factory employment has fallen by roughly the same fraction. The story of Standard Motor Products, a 92-year-old, family-run manufacturer based in Queens, sheds light on both phenomena. It’s a story of hustle, ingenuity, competitive success, and promise for America’s economy. It also illuminates why the jobs crisis will be so difficult to solve.

By Adam Davidson

We do still make things here, even though many people don’t believe me when I tell them that. Depending on which stats you believe, the United States is either the No. 1 or No. 2 manufacturer in the world (China may have surpassed us in the past year or two). Whatever the country’s current rank, its manufacturing output continues to grow strongly; in the past decade alone, output from American factories, adjusted for inflation, has risen by a third.

Yet the success of American manufacturers has come at a cost. Factories have replaced millions of workers with machines. Even if you know the rough outline of this story, looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is still shocking. A historical chart of U.S. manufacturing employment shows steady growth from the end of the Depression until the early 1980s, when the number of jobs drops a little. Then things stay largely flat until about 1999. After that, the numbers simply collapse. In the 10 years ending in 2009, factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs—about 6 million in total—disappeared. About as many people work in manufacturing now as did at the end of the Depression, even though the American population is more than twice as large today.

Standard will not drop a line in the U.S. and begin outsourcing it to China for a few pennies in savings. “I need to save a lot to go to China,” says Ed Harris, who is in charge of identifying new manufacturing sources in Asia. “There’s a lot of hassle: shipping costs, time, Chinese companies aren’t as reliable. We need to save at least 40 percent off the U.S. price. I’m not going to China to save 10 percent.” Yet often, the savings are more than enough to offset the hassles and expense of working with Chinese factories. Some parts—especially relatively simple ones that Standard needs in bulk—can cost 80 percent less to make in China.

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About author

I'm the executive vice president for a steel casting trade association, the Steel Founders' Society of America. I've got a crazy wife, five crazy children, three crazy people that married into the family, and two crazy fun little grandsons.

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