Even with hiring and output robust enough to be dubbed a manufacturing renaissance by President Barack Obama, workers are falling behind. Factory pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation and has fallen 3 percent on that basis since May 2009, while average pay for all wage earners slid only about 1 percent.
“We need to focus on how many jobs there are that give an adult a chance to earn a decent living,” said Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center in Eugene. “Too much of the discussion has been about the number of jobs, and that’s obviously important, but there’s also a crisis in the quality of jobs.”
“We certainly have seen manufacturers become much more competitive,” said Chad Moutray, chief economist at the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers. Falling labor costs have helped “keep U.S. manufacturers much more competitive and you’re seeing more investment in the U.S. as a result.”
The number of U.S. factory jobs is headed for its fourth annual gain. That’s the longest since a five-year streak ended in 1997 and ushered in a dozen years of declines.
Nonfarm productivity last quarter was the highest since 2008’s second quarter, and September industrial output was the highest since February 2008.
Manufacturers’ after-tax profits rose to a record $289.1 billion last year, more than three times 2009’s tally, the Commerce Department reported. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Industrials Index has more than tripled since its 2009 low, and topped the broader index by 59 percentage points over that span.
The average hourly wage in U.S. manufacturing was $24.56 in October, 1.9 percent more than the $24.10 for all wage earners. In May 2009, the premium for factory jobs was 3.9 percent. Weighing on wages are two-tier compensation systems under which employees starting out earn less than their more experienced peers did, and factory-job growth in the South.
Since the U.S. recession ended in June 2009, for example, Tennessee has added more than 18,000 manufacturing jobs, while New Jersey lost 17,000. Factory workers in Tennessee earned an average of $54,758 annually in 2012, almost 10 percent less than national levels and trailing the $76,038 of their New Jersey counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“What’s being referred to as a recovery in manufacturing is to a large extent a recovery in profitability,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based group funded by unions and private foundations. “That’s good for the companies and good for the shareholders but it’s not necessarily good for the workers.”
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