Manufacturing employment has fallen by one-third over the past decade. Some Members of Congress contend that foreign trade has allowed American employers to offshore these jobs. In fact, technology has driven down manufacturing employment and computers have made manufacturers more productive by automating many routine tasks.

American manufacturers now employ fewer workers to produce more goods. This means less expensive goods, more manufacturing jobs for highly skilled workers, and the elimination of millions of low-skill assembly line positions. These same forces have reduced manufacturing employment around the world. Increased productivity led Chinese employers to eliminate millions of manufacturing jobs in the late 1990s.

Congress should not restrict trade in the mistaken belief that such a policy would bring back American manufacturing jobs. Instead, Congress should create a better business climate for all employers.

Manufacturing Employment Down

The number of Americans employed in manufacturing has dropped significantly over the past decade. Manufacturing employment dropped 20 percent between the peak in 2000 and the end of the most recent expansion in 2007. Since the recession started, manufacturing employment has fallen by an additional 15 percent. Over the past decade producers have shed a net 5.6 million jobs.

Many Members of Congress blame foreign competition for these job reductions. They contend that a flood of inexpensive imports from low-wage nations, especially from China, have put domestic manufacturers out of business. They also believe that reducing imports would restore U.S. manufacturing jobs. This mistaken belief led the House of Representatives to pass the End the Trade Deficit Act (H.R. 1875) in July 2010 and the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act (H.R. 2378) in September 2010.

Trade with China Not at Fault

While foreign trade has put some domestic manufacturing companies out of business, it also has created new opportunities for domestic firms to export their products. Research shows that trade has had little effect on overall manufacturing employment. Instead, it has shifted jobs from less productive firms to more productive domestic ones.

The argument that Chinese trade has cost U.S. manufacturing jobs has even less support. Trade with China has increased, but this increase has come largely at the expense of other U.S. trading partners.

The share of imports coming from China has increased by 14 percentage points since 1992. However, the proportion of U.S. imports coming from Pacific Rim nations other than China has dropped by 19 percent. The overall proportion of goods the U.S. imported from the Pacific Rim actually fell during that period.

Americans are now buying goods manufactured in China instead of goods made in Japan, Indonesia or Taiwan. However, this shift does not explain why domestic manufacturing employment has fallen so sharply.

Technological Advances Automate Work

U.S. manufacturing employment has fallen primarily because U.S. businesses have changed how they make goods. Advances in computers and robotics enable machines to perform many rote tasks that once required human labor. Manufacturers have replaced human labor with these machines in their production processes.

In fact, manufacturers used more than six times as much information processing equipment in 2007 as they used two decades earlier. The amount of capital used per hour of employee work has nearly doubled in that time. Computers and robots now do tasks that once required workers on an assembly line.

More Highly Skilled Manufacturing Jobs

This dynamic has changed the types of workers needed. Manufacturers need fewer unskilled workers to perform rote tasks, but more highly skilled workers to operate the machines that automated those tasks. Manufacturers have substituted brains for brawn.

Manufacturing job opportunities have increased for skilled workers even as overall manufacturing employment has fallen. The number of manufacturing workers employed with an advanced degree (education beyond a bachelor’s degree) increased from 841,000 to 1,065,000 between 1992 and 2000. That figure has continued to increase over the past decade. By 2009, manufacturers employed 1,214,000 workers with an advanced degree—a 44 percent increase since 1992.

Manufacturing employment among workers with a college education also has held up much better than manufacturing employment overall. It rose 20 percent between 1992 and 2000 and fell by only 15 percent between 2000 and 2009—an overall increase of 2.4 percent since 1992.

Fewer Unskilled Jobs

On the other hand, unskilled manufacturing positions have dropped far more than positions for high-skilled workers have risen. Between 1992 and 2000, overall manufacturing employment increased, but the number of manufacturing workers with high school education or less dropped from 11.3 million to 10.5 million. Between 2000 and 2009, it dropped by an additional 37 percent to 6.7 million positions. Manufacturing is becoming a highly skilled occupation that requires less manual labor.

Increased Productivity and Production

This transformation has made manufacturers more productive. Manufacturing productivity has doubled since 1987 and has increased during the past decade. Today, manufacturing workers produce 38 percent more per hour than they produced in 2000.

As a result, America produces more manufactured goods today than a generation ago. In fact, production has risen 46 percent since 1987. Since 2000, manufacturing output has remained relatively stable even as the manufacturing workforce has shrunk. Despite cutbacks in the current recession, manufacturers are producing only slightly less (6.7 percent) than they did in the boom year of 2000. This means America’s manufacturing base remains strong, but technology allows the production of more goods with fewer workers.

More Affordable Manufactured Goods

Increased productivity also has made manufactured goods more affordable. After accounting for improved quality, a new car costs as much in 2010 as in 1994—despite inflation rising 46 percent during that period. This is a widespread phenomenon. The prices of most manufactured goods have risen by less than inflation.

Between 1983 and 2000, the price level inflated 72 percent, yet during that time the price of commodities increased by only 49 percent. And between 2000 and 2009, the price of commodities went up by 14 percent, while the economy-wide price level inflated by 25 percent. Today, increased productivity allows many families to enjoy manufactured goods that would otherwise be out of their reach.

Improved Quality of Work

These technological advances also benefit workers. In the short term, automation eliminates the need for many unskilled positions and leads to painful job losses. In the longer term, it reduces the drudgery of work and makes it safer.

Few workers enjoy performing repetitive tasks on the assembly line. The United Auto Workers negotiated its famous “30-and-out” retirement benefits in part because its members wanted off the assembly line as soon as possible. Automating rote tasks relieves workers of the need to perform them. Instead, workers manage the machines that produce manufactured goods. Most workers prefer this to the drudgery of the assembly line.

Modern manufacturing work is also safer. Managing machines presents fewer opportunities for injury than working on an assembly line. Consequently, manufacturing work has become dramatically safer over the past two decades. The number of on-the-job injuries has fallen from 10.4 injuries per 100 manufacturing workers in 1992 to 7.8 in 2000 and to 4.6 in 2008. Technology has made manufacturing safer and less onerous for workers.

Chinese Manufacturing Employment Down

American manufacturing employment has not gone primarily overseas. Instead, machines are performing tasks that were once performed by human labor. This has happened around the world, including in China. Chinese labor force statistics are not as reliable as those collected by Western nations, but they do shed light on Chinese employment trends.

Chinese manufacturing employment peaked in 1996 at 126 million workers. The privatization of inefficient state-owned enterprises and the adoption of productivity-increasing technology eliminated tens of millions of Chinese manufacturing jobs between 1996 and 2002. Chinese manufacturing employment partially recovered to 113 million by 2006, but was still well below its 1996 level. The same factors that have eliminated American manufacturing jobs also have eliminated millions of manufacturing jobs in China. Congress cannot bring back manufacturing positions eliminated by technology by restricting foreign trade.

Improve Competitiveness

Congress only could restore manufacturing employment to pre-2000 levels by prohibiting the use of modern technology, but this would severely hurt the economy. Banning the use of laborsaving technology in manufacturing makes no more economic sense than prohibiting backhoes from moving dirt on construction sites.

Congress should instead look for ways to improve U.S. competitiveness and to create a better business climate. This would encourage both manufacturing and non-manufacturing companies to expand. Specifically, Congress could:


  • Freeze individual and business tax rates at current levels,
  • Deal with the budget deficit through spending reductions,
  • Adopt tort reforms to limit frivolous lawsuits, including clear statutes of limitations, limits on punitive damages, and sanctions for frivolous claims, and
  • Streamline or eliminate federal regulations that fail a cost-benefit test. For example, Section 404 of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act imposes large accounting costs on publicly traded firms while providing little benefit to shareholders.


Adopting these measures would create a better business climate and lead businesses to hire. Restricting foreign trade will not.

Create a Better Business Climate

U.S. manufacturing employment has dropped by one-third over the past decade. Contrary to popular belief, these jobs have not moved overseas. They have been automated. Manufacturers have become more productive and can now make the same amount of goods with fewer workers. And technology has eliminated many unskilled manufacturing jobs, while creating some new highly skilled positions.

These same factors have eliminated manufacturing jobs in countries around the world, including China. Despite the short-term pain of job losses, automation of rote work benefits workers and consumers. Automation of rote tasks on the assembly line reduces the drudgery of work and improves worker safety. Increased productivity also has made manufactured goods more affordable for American families.

Attempting to bring back the jobs lost to automation by restricting foreign trade will fail. Congress should abandon this approach and instead promote job creation by creating a better business climate.

James Sherk is Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation. This article appeared in Impact Analysis, November-December 2010.

James Sherk
About The Author James Sherk
James Sherk is Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

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