The Manufacturing Facts are in the Data

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The difference between a myth and a reality can be as stark as the difference between day and night. Indeed, the gap between popular perception and reality about the state of US manufacturing is even more interesting when one looks at the data.  A lengthy part of my professional experience comes from working as an economist in the agriculture sector. As a new member of the community of “manufacturing analysts”, I have observed with amazement that there is a disconnect between perception and reality about the state of U.S. manufacturing. It may be just me, but I don’t hear much about the declining significance of U.S. agriculture as I often do about manufacturing. In fact, listening to some people not familiar with the data and industries, one tends to walk away with the feeling that the agriculture industry is a much more significant contributor to the US economy than manufacturing. This perception is part of a broader false notion that US manufacturing is either on life support or dying, and that its contribution to the overall economy is on the decline.

But nothing can be further from the truth.  It is likely that the pessimistic view of the manufacturing sector is perpetuated by a single set of numbers—the manufacturing jobs data. While it is true that U.S. manufacturing jobs have declined, on average, in the last decade, that pattern it not unique to only the United States. Declining manufacturing jobs have been observed across most advanced economies. Even so, job statistics alone should not define the overall performance of the U.S. manufacturing industry. A closer look at the data paints a totally different picture of the relative performance of the manufacturing industry.  According to some industry estimates, U.S. manufacturing supports about 17.2 million jobs, equivalent to 9 percent of total employment. Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for about 2 percent of total U.S. employment, averaging 1.3 million jobs in the last decade.

Manufacturing accounted for about 12 percent ($1.87 trillion) of U.S. gross domestic product in 2012, while agriculture’s share was 1 percent ($171.23 billion) in that same period.  Yes, manufacturing value-added to US 2012 GDP was 11 times that of agriculture’s. The numbers have been pretty stable going back four years—the contributions of the agriculture and manufacturing industries to the U.S. economy averaged 1.1 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively, from 2009 to 2011. In fact, durable-goods manufacturing has been the biggest single driver of overall growth in the economy in recent years, rising 13.3 percent, 6.8 percent, and 9.1 percent in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively.

The recent growth in U.S. manufacturing output is not surprising. Manufacturing accounts for an estimated 70 percent of all private sector R&D in the United States. Furthermore, industry analysts have identified keys trends—rising U.S. productivity, declining cost of energy, and a reduction in the bottlenecks associated with long supply chains—that would minimize the asymmetry between U.S. and foreign cost of production, and put U.S. manufacturing on a much more competitive trajectory.

But these positive developments are often lost in the midst of the deep disconnect between the myth and reality about manufacturing.  As shown in the graph below, manufacturing output experienced positive growth for past three consecutive years, and the output has historically dwarfed agricultural GDP, contrary to some of the myths. In fact, there is ongoing debate about whether the recent positive trends in U.S. manufacturing represent a wider resurgence, driven by a structural shift, or just the normal cyclical recovery. While a three-year period may be too short to ascertain the existence of a manufacturing renaissance, the preponderance of evidence appears to be pointing in the direction of a positive structural transformation in U.S. manufacturing.

Manufacturing GDP growing since 2010

About Author

James Kiawu

James Kiawu is an Economist with the Manufacturing Policy and Research team. He currently handles a portfolio of new research projects related to the economic impact of MEP Center activities.

7 Comments

  1. You need to take the data back to the 1990s in order to understand the decline in the sector due, primarily, to outsourcing of manufacturing. Looking at it just back to 2004 does not get you to the point of the change.

  2. Interesting comparison to the agricultural sector and I understand the point of order and your attempt to highlight the challenges in the agricultural sector as well. Comparison noted. However, the manufacturing sector nationally and in my state of Delaware, retains the greatest opportunity to increase capacity and thus create jobs. We need manufacturing to be 20% of GNP, not 9%. Only focusing on small domestic manufacturing, advanced tech and trade reforms will accomplish this.

  3. I can understand that the purpose of the graph is to challenge prespectives on USA manaufacturing, but for what reason?
    If the graph is aimed at attracting investment to manufacturing rather than agriculture, other comparative measures could be shown.
    If it is to attract investment in manufacturing it may be more appropriate to compare US manufacturing GDP growth with competing nations, by product groups.

  4. Please look at Susan Houseman’s original research on the “growth” of manufacturing output. After looking at the data, the Upjohn Institute economist found that almost ALL of the increase in U.S. output can be attributable to the faulty measure of productivity increases in computer chips (i.e. those associated with Moore’s Law). She writes: “Understanding the international competitiveness of manufacturing and the consequences of import competition for workers and businesses is critical for developing sound manufacturing policy. As a start, analysts and policymakers should recognize that the aggregate output and productivity statistics are not representative of what is happening in most of manufacturing.”

    A synopsis of her research, titled “The Debate Over the State of U.S. Manufacturing: How the Computer Industry Affects the Numbers and Perceptions,” is located at http://research.upjohn.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1197&context=empl_research.

  5. Interesting observation. Indeed, the average growth rate of U.S. real manufacturing GDP was 3.5 percent in the 1990s compared to 1.2 percent in the 2000s. In addition, manufacturing’s share of private sector employment dwindled from 17 percent to 13 percent during that same period, partly due to technological advances in manufacturing. But the contribution of manufacturing to the U.S. economy remained stable during those decades. In the 1990s, manufacturing share of the U.S. economy was 12 percent and in the 2000s that share was unchanged. From 2010 to 2012 manufacturing output grew 6 percent on average, and if this trend holds, then what we are seeing is a rejuvenation in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

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