Nostalgia for manufacturing won’t bring better jobs for UK workers
Everyone loves manufacturing jobs. In the United States, the fondness for factories is something President Joe Biden shares with his predecessor Donald Trump. “I don’t buy for a second that the vitality of American manufacturing is a thing of the past,” Biden said in January as he signed an executive order to further encourage the federal government to purchase products made in the United States. In the UK, the ruling Conservative Party is drawn to the idea that new factory jobs in struggling areas could reduce geographic inequalities.
A new report from UK center-right think tank Onward sums up the argument: Manufacturing is a high productivity sector that creates good jobs with living wages for people without a degree, for whom the alternative options are often a job. poorly paid in the service sector. It is certainly true that many of the places that have lost entire swathes of manufacturing jobs in recent decades have suffered serious social and economic damage. But is it possible to bring back the jobs?
Manufacturing in rich countries is very productive as the automation and offshoring of labor-intensive processes means that the industry now needs fewer people to manufacture the same volume of goods. I once interviewed a young man who had quit a job in a seat belt factory due to boredom. “It was literally sitting in a chair and every couple of minutes you hit a button or two,” he said. The idea of “deindustrialization” in the rich world is not quite right: manufacturing output in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom has held up even as manufacturing employment has declined.
Jeegar Kakkad, an economist at the Tony Blair Institute who worked for Jaguar Land Rover and MakeUK, the manufacturers’ association, says new manufacturing companies in countries like the UK tend to be capital intensive without creating many jobs. “Do you want to increase the number of jobs if the jobs that come back are the least skilled and least productive jobs?” ” he asks. “We don’t want to compete on labor costs, it’s a precarious position in global value chains and that shouldn’t be the ambition of workers. “
There are economic forces that could spark demand for more manufacturing in rich countries, from green energy projects to certain consumer goods that benefit from super short supply chains. Policymakers can ‘take a step back’ from these trends, as Kakkad puts it, but they should not expect them to create a large number of jobs for low-skilled people, let alone in the fields. that they would choose precisely.
If you use subsidies or other incentives to persuade companies to set up factories in certain locations, their shallow roots mean they’re likely to shut down again if they don’t prove to be effective enough. Within large companies, different factory sites often compete with each other, with workers well aware of internal “rankings”.
In Glasgow, a McVitie’s biscuit factory will soon close with the loss of 500 jobs, despite various efforts to save it. There is still a demand for McVitie’s cookies, but owner Pladis Global says it has excess production capacity at its seven UK sites. Scottish Enterprise, a development agency, awarded the company £ 808,000 in ‘training assistance funding’ in 2014 to ‘upgrade the skills of Tollcross staff, saving 485 jobs’ (Pladis said “all conditions for this award have been met.”) The agency gave the company an additional £ 193,000 in 2016/17 to support a project to bring the Nibbles brand to Glasgow from Turkey.
A more sustainable strategy to help lower paid workers and their local economies would be to turn the growing number of “bad jobs” in sectors such as care and warehousing into “good jobs”. After all, jobs in manufacturing were bad jobs too. In the 1930s, the Auto Workers News described how men leaving a Ford auto plant in the United States were so exhausted from the pace of the assembly lines that they fell asleep within minutes of getting on streetcars, even standing. Industrial accidents were so common in downtown Detroit that novelist Erskine Caldwell called it the “City of Eight Fingers.” These jobs became decent because workers (with the help of supportive governments) fought for better conditions, benefits and a greater share of productivity gains.
It is misleading to say that today’s service sector jobs lack the opportunity for productivity growth that could support better wages and conditions. A few years ago, order pickers in Amazon warehouses were picking about 100 items per hour. Now, with robots bringing them the shelves, they pick out 300 to 400 items per hour.
The nostalgia for manufacturing jobs is understandable but unimaginative. We cannot reverse history, but we can learn from it.