The long decline in U.S. manufacturing employment from its peak of 19.5 million in June 1979 to a low of 11.5 million in January 2010 appears to be over. American manufacturing has added half a million jobs since. February’s number came in at 11.98 million, prompting hopes it may edge above 12 million this spring. Pace spring 2009, that was a level it was last at in 1941 when manufacturing accounted for one in three American non-farm jobs, compared to fewer than one in eleven today.
The uptick in employment may be heralding a long-term renaissance in American manufacturing. Its is one of the best-positioned globally to take advantage of the new value-added and desktop manufacturing techniques, such as additive manufacturing (also known as 3-D printing) now starting to take hold. In addition, the natural gas price revolution taking place in North America means lower energy input prices, an increasingly more important cost of production than labor. Global supply chains are beginning to be seen as a potential liability because of their carbon footprints and vulnerability to natural and man-made disruption.
Highly productive manufacturing, like America’s, requires a cadre of highly trained workers, not masses of unskilled brawn, one reason that manufacturing employment plummeted over the past 30 years even as output rose. There is still a skills gap to bridge. Yet more small-scale, local manufacturing that the new techniques, and particularly additive manufacturing, allow should generate jobs in the long term for computer-literate but not necessarily college-educated workers, particularly where manufacturing and services blur. Hence the potential importance of the training institutes U.S. industry is starting to fund for creating a new generation of American apprentices to enter a new era of American manufacturing.