There has been a lot written recently about the state and future of making stuff in the US. Just in the past month, Strategy & Business has touted new technology and software as a way forward for American manufacturing (America’s Real Manufacturing Advantage, Jan 20) while Steven Rattner, the administration’s former Car Czar, took the New York Times pooh-poohing talk of a revitalized manufacturing base (The Myth of Industrial Rebound, Jan 25). As Rattner sees it, whatever boost there has been in manufacturing has been inconsequential and not beneficial for workers.
But we need to get real about the so-called renaissance, which has in reality been a trickle of jobs, often dependent on huge public subsidies. Most important, in order to compete with China and other low-wage countries, these new jobs offer less in health care, pension and benefits than industrial workers historically received. …
This disturbing trend is particularly pronounced in the automobile industry. When Volkswagen opened a plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2011, the company was hailed for bringing around 2,000 fresh auto jobs to America. Little attention was paid to the fact that the beginning wage for assembly line workers was $14.50 per hour, about half of what traditional, unionized workers employed by General Motors or Ford received.
With benefits added in, those workers cost Volkswagen $27 per hour. Consider, though, that in Germany, the average autoworker earns $67 per hour. In effect, even factoring in future pay increases for the Chattanooga employees, Volkswagen has moved production from a high-wage country (Germany) to a low-wage country (the United States).
This all gets us to a different New York Times on Harley Davidson that describes changes the firm made to save itself (Building a Harley Faster, Jan 28). What is interesting is that Harley’s approach differs fundamentally from either of the approaches above. They are relying on humans over widespread automation and working with their existing, unionized workforce as opposed to hightailing it to a location with cheaper labor. (more…)