Myth of the Makers

The government should not promote manufacturing as a way of generating new jobs. Especially not as a way of recapturing a nostalgic image of the economy of the 1950s. We only have to look at the experience of workers in factories in Detroit or China to see the downsides of working in modern manufacturing. Instead, governments should be trying to create jobs in which people have a degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

In both the UK and the US politicians have said that they will give extra support to the manufacturing sector. In addition Gene Sterling, the Director of Obama’s National Economics Council, recently gave a speech in which he seemed to be putting the case for ‘industrial policy’ (i.e. governments actively supporting certain industries through, for example, cash).

As Ezra Klein rightly points out the argument for an industrial policy being made by some policy makers is that we should support manufacturing NOT as a way of creating jobs but as a way of creating ‘spill-over’ effects.

However, politicians know that they can appeal to many voters by saying that they will create new manufacturing jobs. This argument’s appeals comes from a variety of reasons including the pain that the closure of big plants caused for many communities, the fact that in many areas no employment or no equivalently employment filled the vacuum caused by the closure of these plants and the idea that real economic activity involves making physical things.

We don’t need to be reminded but here is a graph clearly showing that in all rich countries the number of people working in manufacturing has been declining for decades now.

Here is an infographic from the census that explains a bit more of what has been happening in the US;

You can see that in the 1940s the largest sector for employment was manufacturing. Now education, healthcare, other caring professions, retail and administrative work are all significantly bigger employers.

It is very tempting to look at the large number of people who are currently unemployed, to notice that they are often living in areas that used to have large numbers of people working in manufacturing and to call for governments to support the creation of manufacturing jobs in these areas. But what would these jobs be like? Lets look at the examples of Detroit and Shenzhen.

What is it like working in these new manufacturing jobs in Detroit? Well, it is a lot like the existing manufacturing jobs in Detroit but you get paid a lot less (half what others are getting) and you get fewer benefits. It looks like the only way that these car factories can compete with Japanese or German competitors is through lowering wages. Are we really so keen to create these kind of low paid jobs?

And what is it like working in manufacturing in China? Here is Rob Schmitz’s piece from NPR on exactly this topic;

Workers that make iPads in China use their hands. It sounds like monotonous and tough work. However, as Leslie Change reports in her piece, the work is attractive because it is well paid (compared to the work you could find in rural China), can help people get a better education and perhaps also because of the bright lights of city life. Their main complaints about the work are the unfair treatment they get from their supervisors and also the rapidly increasing cost of living in cities like Shenzhen. In fact, some factories are finding that they are having to raise wages, increase mechanization or relocate because it is hard to retain workers in many of these factories.

Do either of these types of job actually sound that attractive to you? Do they sound much much better than working in education or healthcare or retail?

Some (notably Richard Sennett) have argued that fewer people working with their hands has a number of other, almost spiritual downsides including the loss of the satisfaction people can get from making. I have spoken to many people who would agree with this and who talk about the days in which “people actually made things”.

This is overblown. Does the actual tasks that you perform in your work matter that much? I think that the relationships you have at work and the degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose your jobs gives you are far more important than whether or not you use your hands. In particular, your relationship with your supervisor can have a dramatic effects on your levels of stress, anger and worry.

It is very tempting for politicians to promise an eager public that they will create new manufacturing jobs. We are eager for these new jobs because we have such high levels of unemployment, because many of us still hurt from the loss of manufacturing jobs and because we think manufacturing is real work. None of these is a good enough reason for governments to promote manufacturing jobs. Instead, governments could do much more to create new jobs, especially ones in which people have a more equal relationship with their supervisor and in which they have a degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose.


DC Returning Citizens facts

1. Federal statutes prohibit employment of ex-offenders with certain criminal convictions in certain jobs including certain airport jobs, armored car crew members, and any jobs in employee benefit plans.

2. In DC employers and occupational licensing agencies can ask about arrests that never led to conviction unless the record has been sealed, and can refuse to hire or license anyone with a criminal record no matter their qualifications.  There are no opportunities for people with criminal records to obtain restoration of civil rights or certificates of rehabilitation for employment purposes.  Records are available on the Internet.

3. Employers can be held liable for the criminal actions of their employees under the theory of negligent hiring which states that “..employers who know, or should have known, that an employee has had a history of criminal behavior may be liable for the employee’s criminal or tortuous acts.”

4. Many employers do not want to hire returning citizens. In surveys only about 40% said they were willing to even consider hiring a returning citizen. In 2002 an academic sent employers in Milwaukee applications from four groups of imaginery male job applicants with virtually identical educational and work experience credentials. They were split into white and black citizens and returning citizens. Returning citizens were said to have been incarcerated for 18 months for a non-violent drug sale. White citizens received offers from 34% of employers, white returning citizens received offers from 17%, black citizens received offers from 14% and black returning citizens received offers from just 5% of employers.

5. Returning citizens often do not have academic qualifications. One study found that 70% of returning citizens do not have a high school diploma.

6. Returning citizens have gaps in their work experience as a result of being in prison and often had limited work experience prior to detention.

7. Returning citizens are more likely to live in stigmatised areas.

8. Returning citizens are more likely to be a member of a race that is discriminated against by employers.

Connerley, M (2001) Criminal background checks for prospective and current employees: Current practices among municipal agencies Public Personnel Management, Vol 30(2)

Holzer, H. (2003) Employment Dimensions of Reentry: Understanding the Nexus between Prisoner Reentry and Work New York University Law School

Hirsch, A. et al (2002) Every Door Closed: Barriers Facing Parents With Criminal Records Center for Law and Social Policy and Community Legal Service

Legal Action Center (2009) After Prison: Roadblock to Reentry

Pager, D (2002) The Mark of a Criminal Record U.S. Department of Justice

Travis, J et al (2001) From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry The Urban Institute