When manufacturing left Youngstown in the ‘70s, it brought the city to its knees. This has led a lot of people to conclude that bringing manufacturing back is the only way to restore the city to greatness.
The latest incarnation of this belief has Youngstown State University collaborating with Eastern Gateway Community College and the Mahoning Valley Manufacturing Coalition to build a manufacturing training facility downtown.
We need to wake up. Manufacturing is dead. Manufacturing is not Jesus. It’s not coming back. It’s not going to save you.
Bernie Sanders can’t create blue-collar jobs by strengthening unions and blocking free trade agreements, and Donald Trump can’t make America great again by bringing jobs back from China.
In fact, blocking free trade agreements will just make our clothes and iPads significantly more expensive while providing comparatively fewer jobs. But that’s beside the point.
The fact is, those manufacturing jobs don’t exist anymore. Improved technology and productivity increases have made manufacturing significantly less labor-intensive than it was 40 years ago.
If we were to bring all Chinese manufacturing operations to the United States, we wouldn’t see a one-for-one transfer of jobs. Labor is significantly cheaper in Asian countries, so they employ more workers and less capital (or machinery) in their plants. More expensive American labor would lead US companies to employ fewer workers and more capital in their production processes.
The rise of additive manufacturing is indicative of this. Additive manufacturing has a place in Youngstown’s economic future, but it requires engineers that know how to design parts and computer scientists who can manipulate the machines that make them.
The manufacturing training center will likely prepare people for those jobs, but it’s not going to spark a return to our industrial past. It’s going to train a small number of workers for high-skilled positions in capital-intensive facilities. It’s not going to spawn factories that will provide high school graduates with high-paying jobs they can count on having until retirement.
In 1979, 19.6 million Americans possessed manufacturing jobs. Today, the number is 12.3 million. This leads to a lot of people longing for the good old days. “We used to make things in this country,” is a common refrain. And yet, industrial production is higher than it’s ever been — twice what it was in 1979. We’re just doing more with less.
Take a look at Vallourec Star. When the billion-dollar facility opened in 2013, it employed around 350 people. That’s not nothing, but it’s just a fraction of the 5,000 workers that were issued pink slips when Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed its doors on Black Monday.
To employ the same number of workers through manufacturing as we did in our heyday, we would need to produce roughly four times what we were producing then. That is a pipe dream. And if we keep spending time and money trying to follow it, we’re diverting resources that could be put to more productive uses.
The editorial board that writes editorials consists of the editor-in-chief, the managing editor, the copy editor, and the news editor. These opinion pieces are written separately from news articles. They draw on the opinions of the entire writing staff and do not reflect the opinions of any individual staff member. The Jambar’s business manager and non-writing staff do not contribute to editorials, and the adviser does not have final approval.