America is changing, and sometimes it’s easy to imagine that it’s for the worse. After World War II, America had a bustling and fast-growing economy. It seemed that America made a little bit of everything, and that everyone had a well-paid hand in making something. Now, more and more of the products we use every day seem to have been shipping in from overseas: they’re stamped with things like MADE IN CHINA and MADE IN KOREA, while the products marked MADE IN AMERICA seem fewer, further between, and more expensive than ever.
In reality, though, America still makes an awful lot of things – though the sorts of things that Americans make are increasingly complicated and specific, reflecting the improving skills and knowledge of our workforce. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that Americans don’t make things or work with their hands anymore, because that is simply not the reality.
Made in America
The fact is, manufacturing remains a huge employer in America. While manufacturing jobs peaked in the 1980s, they didn’t fall too far from that point until around the 2008 crash. And while manufacturing jobs were very hard-hit during that crash, they’ve been making a comeback ever since – and there’s every reason to believe they’ll continue to do so.
Other jobs that involve making things but aren’t necessarily lumped in with manufacturing – such as construction – are also vital to the American economy. Americans love to build homes and buildings, and those are still accomplished by domestic firms that hire American laborers.
But if so many Americans are still working with their hands and making things, then why do so many of our knick-knacks and doohickies seem to be made in China? Well, partly because Americans actually are making fewer simple objects – while making more controlled environmental enclosures, custom machinery, and other complex items.
The changing nature of American manufacturing
Our modern world demands new types of tools – and new types of laborers to make them. Once, a town needed a toolmaker; now, industries need manufacturing equipment crafters. The tools that manufacturers themselves use are now immensely complicated, and those tools must be made in turn by other manufacturers, and each person down the line has to have an understanding of the complex machinery involved and what tasks it must be able to handle.
In other words, manufacturing jobs are increasingly requiring more skill in America, meaning that experience, technical know-how, and even higher degrees are required in U.S. manufacturing far more often than they once were.
When it comes to simple manufacturing, lower wages are king: a company will do everything it can to keep costs down, and since skilled labor isn’t required, most companies are willing to ship those jobs overseas and hire unskilled laborers willing to work for less. Whether or not they should be allowed to do this is an open debate – some feel that free trade agreements, which make this process easier, are bad for American workers (while others, including most economists, argue that free trade agreements are good for American workers on the whole – even if they’re bad for those in specific industries). But regardless of the fate of unskilled jobs, American manufacturing is growing as of this writing, and that’s because America has a skilled labor force ideal for more complex manufacturing tasks. America still makes things, but its higher-paid workers tend to make more complicated and more important things. So don’t let anyone tell you that Americans don’t make things anymore: we make the things that are hardest to make.