As I’ve written previously, I’m becoming convinced that badly lagging wages for U.S. manufacturing workers stem in part from companies inevitably hiring less and less qualified workers who need lots of time and training to get up to snuff. But that doesn’t mean I have to be overjoyed about it.
So although I remain hopeful that these hiring practices will eventually produce the kind of highly skilled and productive manufacturing workforce the country needs, it seems justified to point out that last week’s Labor Department report showed industry’s inflation-adjusted wages nearing historically awful territory – certainly for an economy that’s expanding.
The worst news (and the competition was keen): Manufacturing’s real wage recession got longer at both ends. Because constant-dollar hourly pay fell by 0.37 percent on month in January (the worst sequential performance since last August, 2017’s 0.64 percent drop), the downturn not only extended another month. It also pushed back the start date to January, 2016.
In other words, the manufacturing real wage recession just turned three years old. During that period, after-inflation hourly pay has declined by a cumulative 0.09 percent.
Some more (depressing context): If you go back further in the figures, you see that real manufacturing wages haven’t budged at all since February, 2009. That’s nearly ten years of outright stagnation.
In fact, since the current economic recovery began, in mid-2009, inflation-adjusted manufacturing wages have risen by only 0.47 percent.
If you’re desperate for a silver lining, here’s the only one I could find. Manufacturing’s year-on-year real wage decrease was slightly less (0.09 percent), than that between the previous Januarys (0.19 percent). So technically, that’s progress.
Real wage gains for the overall private sector continued to outpace those in manufacturing by a wide margin, especially the longer the time period you examine. On a monthly basis, the private sector’s 0.46 percent December price-adjusted pay hike was revised down to 0.37 percent. But that still beat manufacturing’s (0.37 percent). The same holds for January – when private sector wages after inflation climbed by another 0.18 percent.
On annual basis, the private sector left manufacturing in the dust, real wage-wise. Its January-January 1.68 percent improvement was its best since July, 2014’s 1.81 percent. Moreover, it nearly tripled the constant dollar wage increase of 0.66 percent between January, 2017 and January, 2018.
Worse still, since the current recovery began, real private sector wages are up 5.82 percent. Although not an eye-popper, given that it represents the change over more than nine years, this rate of increase was 12.38 times faster than its manufacturing counterpart – 0.47 percent.
Even worse, the gap is widening. During the recovery through last January, real private sector wages had only risen 7.27 times faster than real manufacturing wages.
If you believe the low-skills explanation for the manufacturing wages’ dismal performance in absolute and relative terms, you could legitimately hope that training and education can turn the picture around. At the same time, if you’re a low-paid manufacturing worker, you could legitimately wonder how much longer some payoff of more knowledge and experience will take.