When the sound of winning is silence: Manufacturing quiets its critics

By Bart Taylor | Oct 06, 2020

After launching CompanyWeek in 2013, I fought a running editorial battle with a cadre of business writers about the state of U.S. manufacturing. The narrative from the national writers was that manufacturing was no longer essential, a quaint vestige of an earlier economic era. Columnists from Forbes, Fortune, the Wall Street Journal -- most all had bought into the narrative that globalization had won the day, that it didn't matter where America's uber-talented tech and engineering class manufactured their products. China? Sure. Vietnam? OK. Anywhere but here.

I hit back in columns like A report proclaims the manufacturing "renaissance" a hoax, and the national media follow suit; and Is manufacturing great again? Don't ask. We stopped counting.

It's not that my adversaries were wrong; U.S. companies had indeed chased cheap labor overseas. Vast sums of capital followed as American brands built a manufacturing ecosystem offshore, employing millions of foreign nationals to work in factories entirely removed from the communities where products were inspired and headquarters based.

In retrospect, we could have guessed this was a model that inevitably would develop leaks. But the mistake of my adversaries was a fixation on the numbers. At the time, they were staggering. As we've documented, America lost millions of manufacturing jobs -- about 4 million from 2006 to 2012 alone -- leaving total U.S. manufacturing employment around 12 million jobs, or about half the number at its peak.

Even today, there's still an "enthusiasm gap" among the business intelligentsia because many of these jobs won't come back -- here or anywhere. Technology is transforming the sector. And without high employment numbers, manufacturing will continue to be underestimated.

But it's a reasonable guess that manufacturing employment, at its current level of 12 million jobs or so nationally, has found a new equilibrium. Losses to automation will be offset by gains from growth industries powering today's manufacturing economy and a new national enthusiasm for domestic production. In Colorado and elsewhere, the sector is also proving uber-resilient in today's "crisis" economy.

The fixation on numbers also never took into account the societal implications of sending the production of American-inspired products offshore. We're a country of builders, of makers, of doers. If Main Street wasn't home to a factory, it provided a direct path to one. Along with our lunch boxes, we shipped our national identity offshore when we decided others could make our products for us.

But just as the crowds that return to ballparks will raise the roof and replace the strange silence that today attends a touchdown, so too will the business punditocracy celebrate the return of America's manufacturing ethos, in loud and boisterous terms. Watch for it.

For today, their silence speaks volumes.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.