There’s been so much headline economic news this week that some other indicators that also deserve attention have been neglected (including by yours truly!). Let’s remedy that at least partially this afternoon by examining some detailed 2014 labor productivity numbers for manufacturing put out by the Labor Department on Tuesday. The big surprise to me: The output per hour performance for some supposed American industrial standouts (like aerospace and construction equipment and pharmaceuticals) has been totally underwhelming, especially over the longer term. Meanwhile, sectors often written off as losers (like steel and automotive and textiles) have racked up impressive gains.
First, two important caveats. Labor productivity isn’t the only measure of efficiency. Multi-factor productivity is a much more comprehensive gauge, incorporating all manner of inputs (like capital and technology, not just person-hours and pay). But these numbers come out after a much longer time delay than the labor data. In addition, as the Labor Department now acknowledges, the labor productivity numbers are significantly distorted by their inherent tendency to consider job (and production) offshoring as a boost in labor output per hour. Such practices may validly be viewed as efficiency enhancing, but they arguably do little if anything to strengthen manufacturing at home.
Yet even with these qualifications, the new labor productivity report contains some eye-opening results – beginning with the most recent data. The industry with the biggest improvement in labor productivity between 2013 and 2014? Leather and related products (soaring 18 percent)! And number two was textile finishing and coating factories (10.8 percent). Not far behind was household appliances (9.4 percent), which hasn’t made many “industries of the future” lists, either.
Other big winners were more predictable. Labor productivity from 2013 to 2014 jumped 9.8 percent in the semiconductor industry, 8.2 percent for electronic instruments, and 7.7 percent for agriculture, construction, and mining machinery.
But now check out some of the worst performers. Pharmaceuticals generated a solid 4.5 percent labor productivity increase between 2013 and 2014, but the larger chemicals category in which it’s placed registered a mere 0.9 percent uptick. The rest of this group saw its labor productivity fall. Another loser was motor vehicles – a recent manufacturing output leader whose real wages rose that year after weakening earlier during the recovery. Its labor productivity fell by 3.3 percent. Aerospace, a shining U.S. export (and trade surplus) superstar, fared better, but its 3.3 percent annual labor productivity increase wasn’t star quality.
Just as important, these surprises hold up surprisingly well over the longer term. According to the Labor Department’s 1987-2013 figures, leather products makers weren’t super-efficient during this period, when average annual labor productivity rose by only 1.1 percent. But textile mills improved at a yearly 3.4 percent pace and iron and steel mills (besieged throughout these years by foreign dumping) saw labor productivity increase by four percent on average each year.
Information technology hardware products knocked it out of the park between 1987 and 2013, with the broad category improving labor productivity by 10.6 percent each year, and semiconductors growing at a 15 percent rate. But also among the gainers were automotive (3.8 percent) and household appliances (3.3 percent) – both of which ran mammoth trade deficits during that period.
As for industries that excelled in international markets, aerospace productivity advanced by only a so-so 2.7 percent annually from 1987 to 2013; turbines and power generation equipment recorded an even smaller 1.9 percent yearly gain. Agricultural, construction, and mining machinery recorded a mere 2.5 percent advance; and plastics and resins were scarcely better at 2.6 percent. As for pharmaceuticals – where U.S.-owned firms are widely considered world beaters – don’t ask! This sector’s average annual labor productivity actually declined (by an average of 0.3 percent each year) over this decade-and-a-half.
I’m hesitant to draw sweeping conclusions without seeing similar multi-factor productivity data, but one takeaway seems pretty obvious: Just as way too many economists mistakenly dismiss much manufacturing they don’t consider high tech as eminently expendable, even many of the sector’s champions might want to reconsider their definitions of “advanced manufacturing.”