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July 3, 2012 at 11:09 AM

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Manufacturing is not going away

When siting the proposed basketball arena in Seattle’s Sodo district and also the Burke Gilman Trail through Ballard, there has been an assumption, sometimes unstated, that manufacturing is the activity of the past. The activity of the future is entertainment. If the two clash, well, so what, because Seattle’s future, and the State of Washington’s future, is post-industrial.

And it is not so. We are used to statistics showing that the percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing has been declining—and so it has, for about 100 years, mainly because manufacturers have learned to produce a given amount of value with fewer labor hours. In recent years manufacturing jobs have also declined because of offshoring to China, but that is neither the whole story nor the permanent story.

Dave Gering of Seattle’s Manufacturing Industrial Council has been saying for several years that manufacturing is doing better than people think. Now he is making his argument with state Department of Revenue figures. Since 2003, revenue of all retail stores in Washington has risen 36 percent. In the same period, revenue of all manufacturers has risen 82 percent.

City Councilman Richard Conlin has also been pointing this out. In a recent blog post, he notes that going overseas for cheap labor has its drawbacks, such as political problems, corruption, quality control problems, patent rip-offs, etc. And wages in many places, including China, are not as low as they once were. Some American manufacturers are bringing work back. Referring to an article by geographer Joel Kotkin in Forbes magazine, Conlin writes:

Since 2010, manufacturers have added 470,000 jobs in the United States, with a rate of job growth that is 10% faster than the rest of the private economy, Forbes reports. Areas that have fared best have been those that are well positioned to bring together technology and manufacturing. In our area Boeing is the outstanding example, but many other industries now create high-tech and blue-collar jobs at the same time.

Over the past year the Seattle metropolitan area was No. 2 in the nation in manufacturing growth, expanding employment by 7.9% to 164,000 manufacturing jobs. The aerospace sector, led by Boeing, accounted for roughly half this expansion. Seattle is one of the few big metropolitan areas where there are more manufacturing jobs today than in 2006, before the recession hit. Manufacturing employment is up 0.4% over the past five years.

I looked at Employment Security figures for the past year. These are statewide figures from May to May. Here is a thumbnail picture:

--Official unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, down 1 percentage point in one year, from 9.3 percent to 8.3 percent.

--53,400 net new jobs created, all of them in the private sector--more than all of them, actually, because the public sector lost 6,000 jobs.

--12,000 of those jobs, a bit less than one-quarter, were in manufacturing, of which 8,100 jobs were in aerospace.

What does all this have to do with sports stadiums and bike trails? Not that you can’t have them. But don’t put them in an industrial area and assume it won’t matter because the industry is going away, or that industry won’t grow. Because industry has a better future (and maybe a better present) than many people think.

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