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The Manufacturing Imperative

CAMBRIDGE – We may live in a post-industrial age, in which information technologies, biotech, and high-value services have become drivers of economic growth. But countries ignore the health of their manufacturing industries at their peril.

High-tech services demand specialized skills and create few jobs, so their contribution to aggregate employment is bound to remain limited. Manufacturing, on the other hand, can absorb large numbers of workers with moderate skills, providing them with stable jobs and good benefits. For most countries, therefore, it remains a potent source of high-wage employment.

Indeed, the manufacturing sector is also where the world’s middle classes take shape and grow. Without a vibrant manufacturing base, societies tend to divide between rich and poor – those who have access to steady, well-paying jobs, and those whose jobs are less secure and lives more precarious. Manufacturing may ultimately be central to the vigor of a nation’s democracy.

The United States has experienced steady de-industrialization in recent decades, partly due to global competition and partly due to technological changes. Since 1990, manufacturing’s share of employment has fallen by nearly five percentage points. This would not necessarily have been a bad thing if labor productivity (and earnings) were not substantially higher in manufacturing than in the rest of the economy – 75% higher, in fact.