Like a bad penny, manufacturing renaissance and reshoring items keep turning up in the mainstream and even trade media. Just take a look here and here. And as long as they do, I’ll keep debunking them with the facts.
This time, I’ll take a closer look at reshoring claims, and illustrate how they completely ignore the enormous overall shrinkage of the American manufacturing workforce over the last decade. A staple of reshoring optimism has been a set of allegations claiming that whereas domestic industry was sending a net of about 150,000 jobs overseas in 2003, now offshoring and reshoring are just about cancelling each other out.
Before getting to the actual data, however, some commonsense but widely neglected points need to be made about what’s known for sure and not known about manufacturing job flows. In the first place, there are no comprehensive figures kept on offshoring. The U.S. government is (understandably) not anxious to publicize these effects of indiscriminate trade liberalization, and companies have learned that this information can trigger public relations disasters. Just as understandably, news of reshoring operations are loudly trumpeted, and therefore easy to find.
Second, the reshoring cheerleaders seem to think that only American jobs sent overseas and then brought back should be counted in analyses of manufacturing competitiveness. But as they should know, foreign-based companies have been investing in new manufacturing facilities in the United States for many decades. So-called “transplant” auto factories are major cases in point. In other words, there’s long been significant manufacturing job inflow from abroad. Why don’t the reshorers count it?
But although no comprehensive offshoring numbers are available, the U.S. Labor Department does track the number of workers certified for job loss each year under its Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. The benefits are granted to those who have been displaced for a variety of trade-related reasons, including import competition and production moves overseas. These data are far from perfect, since awareness of the program is anything but universal, and since companies have no reason to broadcast its existence. But even these limited figures undercut the notion that reshoring has caught up to offshoring.
The reshoring cheerleaders are correct in observing that the TAA certifications are down since early in the previous decade. In 2003, 197,748 total workers became eligible; most were in manufacturing. In 2013 (the latest data available), this number was down to 104,158. As is typical, more than three-quarters (80,581) were from goods sectors, and most were from manufacturing.
But surely at least some of this decline stems from the sad reality that there are now so many fewer manufacturing jobs left to send overseas. Between 2003 and 2013 (on a December basis), total U.S. manufacturing employment sank from 14.30 million to 12.05 million. So rather than simply trot out the number of annual TAA certifications, it’s more valid to present them as a share of total manufacturing jobs.
This methodology does show that fewer TAA certifications proportionately were awarded in 2013 than in 2003 (representing 0.86 percent of the manufacturing workforce in the former versus 0.86 percent in the latter). But the 2013 figure was higher than the 2012 figure (0.69 percent). Moreover, during the previous decade, the shares were lower in several years (0.83 percent in 2005, 0.85 percent in 2003). And if you go back a bit further, you see a 0.89 percent figure for 2001 and a 0.57 percent figure for 2000 – when no one believes domestic manufacturing was especially competitive. And once again, these TAA figures are anything but exhaustive.
Reshoring champions can argue that these data fall short of making valid comparisons, because not all certifications were granted for production shifts, or even for manufacturing. They’re right – but I haven’t been able to find detailed enough data for individual workers to satisfy these concerns going back beyond 2009. But I have found the next best indicator – figures that do the trick for numbers of certifications as such awarded each year (since workers do not petition for TAA individually)
They come from the Washington, D.C. law firm Stewart and Stewart, and they show that the share of certifications granted each year for production offshoring has jumped from 31.5 percent in 2003 to 84.2 percent in 2013. And since the first major prediction of a reshoring-driven American manufacturing renaissance appeared in 2011, this share is up from 53.1 percent to 84.2 percent.
This kind of realism should not be misinterpreted as pessimism about America’s manufacturing potential, or the possibility of a renaissance. If I wasn’t fundamentally optimistic, I wouldn’t bother studying the subject. But I am downright dismissive – as you should be – of efforts to build a manufacturing renaissance on sand.