My last post on January 23 shows vividly what the challenges are in restoring the American middle class to the prosperity which existed up until the Great Recession hit in late 2007. The problem, of course, is the gale strength force of globalization which is lifting up low wage workers all over the developing world and creating huge competition for the many low-skilled workers in the United States.
In today’s New York Times, the former Obama Administration car czar, Steven Rattner, writes about “The Myth of Industrial Rebound” in the United States, explaining why manufacturing jobs are coming back much more slowly than other jobs. “Manufacturing would benefit from the same reforms that would help the broader economy: restructuring of our loophole-ridden corporate tax code, new policies to bring in skilled immigrants, added spending on infrastructure and, yes, more trade agreements to encourage foreign direct investment.” The above chart shows the huge decline in manufacturing jobs relative to other parts of the economy such as the education and health sector as well as the professional and business sector. Of course, these more rapidly growing service sectors are the ones benefitting from the information technology revolution. In manufacturing, on the other hand, the low skill jobs are going overseas while the high skill jobs, using technology such as robots, are much fewer in number.
Conclusion: in order to increase manufacturing jobs in the U.S., we better government policies, as outlined above by Mr. Rattner. But we also need to recognize that there aren’t going to be as many high skilled manufacturing jobs in the future. We are going to need much better K-12 and post-secondary educational outcomes to prepare the middle class for the high skilled service jobs which will predominate in the future.
A few days ago the Omaha World Herald ran a story, ”Manufacturers Want More Young People to Consider a Job on the Factory Floor”, pointing out that there are almost 100,000 manufacturing jobs in Nebraska paying an average salary of $55,000 per year, many of which are unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants. Says Dwayne Probyn, Executive Director of the Nebraska Advanced Manufacturing Coalition, “Science, technology, engineering and math, that’s what we need.”
This is in fact a nationwide problem. A few weeks ago the New York Times had an article, “Stubborn Skills Gap In America’s Work Force” reporting on a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assessing literacy, math skills and problem solving using information technology, for people aged 16 – 65, in the 22 advanced nations of the O.E.C.D.. Eduardo Porter reports that while the U.S. is about average in literacy skills, it lags way behind in both math and problem solving skills.
One question addressed by Mr. Porter is the much larger wage premium for highly skilled U.S. workers over unskilled workers, than in most other O.E.C.D. countries. Another question is “how can the U.S. remain such an innovative, comparatively agile economy if the supply of skilled workers is so poor?” The suggested answer is troubling. “The American economy rewards skill very well but the supply hasn’t responded.”
This situation is first of all an indictment of K-12 education in the U.S. which has a high school graduation rate of only 80% and also focuses too much on college preparation rather than career education. These two problems are likely interrelated and at least partially explain the skills gap.
Another factor is immigration. Right now the U.S. is still attracting more talented foreigners than other countries. But it is risky to our economy to depend on foreign talent which can stay home as well as choosing to go elsewhere. Immigration reform will help with this problem but improved K-12 education will help even more.