Manufacturing Keeps Adding Jobs Amid Trump's Tough Talk

(Bloomberg View) -- The manufacturing mini-renaissance continues. Over the past year, according to today's employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the sector has added 222,000 jobs, resuming a recovery that had paused in 2015 and 2016 amid strength in the dollar and weakness in the U.S. oil and gas industry.

Manufacturing Keeps Adding Jobs Amid Trump's Tough Talk

As is somewhat apparent from the previous chart and is clear in the next one, the rate of manufacturing job gains has accelerated in the past few months. It's also looking quite strong by the standards of the past three decades.

Manufacturing Keeps Adding Jobs Amid Trump's Tough Talk

It's important to put this in context: There were more than 17 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. as recently as 2001. Those 222,000 new manufacturing jobs since February 2017 accounted for just 9.8 percent of the payroll jobs added in the U.S.

Still, that's higher than manufacturing's 8.5 percent share of total nonfarm payroll employment. The manufacturing sector is adding jobs at a faster pace than the rest of the economy, which hasn't happened much over the past half century. Manufacturing jobs pay better than other jobs ($900.55 in average weekly earnings for production and non-supervisory employees in February, versus $757.12 for the private sector as a whole). They also tend to have multiplier effects that most service jobs don't, creating other jobs and income in their wake. So a booming manufacturing sector is a very good thing.

What parts of manufacturing are booming most, at least in terms of job creation? Here are the 10 major manufacturing sectors that have added the most jobs since February 2017:

Manufacturing Keeps Adding Jobs Amid Trump's Tough Talk

What's "miscellaneous nondurable goods manufacturing"? Beverages, mostly. And virtually all of the recent beverage job gains are in making alcoholic beverages. The BLS releases data on narrower industry categories with a one-month lag, so here are the manufacturing industries with the biggest 12-month job gains through January:

Manufacturing Keeps Adding Jobs Amid Trump's Tough Talk

Some of these gains can clearly be traced to the oil and gas revival -- mining and oil and gas machinery most obviously, but also plastics and chemicals. But I think that while my Bloomberg View colleague Conor Sen was probably right back in January when he attributed much of last year's economic strength to the oil and gas industry's recovery from the shale mini-bust, there's clearly more than that going on now (although 44,300 new jobs were added in support activities for oil and gas extraction from January to January).

So what is causing this manufacturing boomlet? Well, a better question may be why it has taken so long. Here's what Doug Hohner, Harold L. Sirkin and Michael Zinser of the Boston Consulting Group predicted back in 2011:

A combination of economic forces is fast eroding China’s cost advantage as an export platform for the North American market. Meanwhile, the U.S., with an increasingly flexible workforce and a resilient corporate sector, is becoming more attractive as a place to manufacture many goods consumed on this continent. An analysis by The Boston Consulting Group concludes that, by sometime around 2015 -- for many goods destined for North American consumers -- manufacturing in some parts of the U.S. will be just as economical as manufacturing in China.

By 2016, others were proclaiming that the moment when the U.S. would become the most competitive manufacturing location on Earth was nigh or already upon us, but signs of a major manufacturing renaissance were few and far between. They're still not entirely convincing -- the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods, for example, is still growing. But clearly things are going better now than they were a couple of years ago.

What's changed? Here's a quick list:

  1. As already mentioned, the domestic oil and gas industry is back to growing, after a brief swoon.
  2. The rest of the global economy, especially Europe, is much stronger than it was two years ago.
  3. The dollar has been weakening, making American-made products cheaper abroad.
  4. Business taxes in the U.S. just got cut, by a lot.
  5. Congressional Republicans have stopped caring about the budget deficit.
  6. There's some guy in the White House now who talks about manufacturing a lot.

The role of President Donald Trump in all this is something of a contentious topic. He did sign the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law, which if Hillary Clinton had been elected would not have happened. I tend to think the tax act will have lots of not-so-great medium-to-long-term consequences, but it would be churlish to deny it any credit for what's happening in manufacturing now. Also, with a Republican in the White House, congressional Republicans have generally stopped trying to slow down growth with debt-ceiling brinkmanship and budget cuts.

As for the president's tough talk, and some tough action, on tariffs and trade agreements, I think it's just as likely to hurt manufacturing in the U.S. as help it. Consider the manufacturing sector that saw the biggest jobs gain over the past 12 months, fabricated metal products. Those companies are consumers of the steel and aluminum that the president is about to make more expensive. Also, if the U.S. really has just become the most competitive manufacturing location on Earth, is this really the time to start a trade war likely to raise barriers to U.S. exports around the world?

One thing President Trump has done, though, is make clear that manufacturing jobs matter a lot to him, and that he thinks the U.S. economy can produce lots more of them. In terms of concrete actions to aid manufacturing, I'm pretty sure Barack Obama did more than Trump has so far, but Obama was also a guy who went around saying (true) things like "some of those jobs of the past are just not going to come back." Sometimes a cheerleader, even one who doesn't fully understand the game he's watching, can do wonders for team spirit -- or animal spirits.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

  1. That's using not-seasonally-adjusted data. The chart uses seasonally adjusted to make it less herky-jerky, so the one-year job gain doesn't exactly agree (it's using the seasonally adjusted numbers).

  2. North American Industry Classification System three-digit subsectors, to be precise.

  3. I took some liberties in constructing this list. The more-than-three-NAICS-digit category with the biggest job gains was actually agricultural, construction and mining machinery, for example, with new jobs, but I thought it would be more informative to go instead with its two subcategories with the biggest gains, mining and oil and gas field machinery and construction machinery.

  4. This has become the main oil and gas jobs category, with percent more employees than oil and gas extraction proper.

  5. I'm thinking mainly of the auto industry bailouts, the clean-energy investments in the stimulus bill, and the eight manufacturing innovation centers created during the Obama years.

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