Industrial Jobs are Way Down, But Pinpointing Causes and Solutions is Illusive

By Chris Adams

That the American manufacturing sector shed millions of jobs in the past decade and a half has been an ongoing source of angst in the country’s industrial states.

Pinpointing the cause of that drop is dicey, and finding a way forward difficult. But two experts on technology and the economy said it is possible for the nation’s manufacturing sector to make a comeback, if the right government supports and incentives are put in place.

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and Robert Scott, an economist and policy director with the Economic Policy Institute, shared that assessment in a National Press Foundation video about the nation’s changing manufacturing landscape.

Atkinson pointed to “smart manufacturing,” or the use of data and technology to design and produce products more quickly, safely, efficiently and inexpensively. “We will have more and more manufacturing that is more customizable,” he said.

To get to widespread adoption of such technology, however, Atkinson said there needs to be more support from the U.S. government. One way, he said, would be to expand the Manufacturing USA program, a government-hosted series of public-private partnerships that focus on new technologies for specific industries. There’s one for biopharmaceuticals, for example, and one for hybrid electronics.

But there aren’t enough of them, Atkinson said. There are 14 in the U.S.; Germany, by contrast, has dozens.

Scott and Atkinson both talked about the causes of the drop in manufacturing jobs. While much of the discussion in recent years has revolved around the impacts of automation and robotics, a much bigger source of manufacturing job loss is trade.

Scott said there’s a “widespread misperception that rapid productivity growth is the primary cause” of manufacturing job losses. Instead, he and other economists pin most of the blame on growing trade deficits.

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