However much credit President Trump may deserve, there’s no question that jobs in manufacturing — long the sick child of the U.S. economy — have turned up nicely since he took office.
What’s not so clear is how much good that surge has done for hundreds of thousands of American factory workers.
Wages for manufacturing have not kept up with other parts of the economy, a fact Trump avoids when he boasts across the nation’s heartland that he is fulfilling his promise to revitalize American industry. More recently, hiring at factories has slowed.
Manufacturing wage gains have lagged so much that, for the first time on record, the average hourly pay for all factory workers this year is less than for employees in service businesses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The difference is small — $27.38 an hour for manufacturing versus $27.47 for service jobs, based on March data — but the gap nonetheless marks a striking reversal of historical trends and a further diminishing of the once-unquestioned idea that manufacturing was the surest ticket to economic security for workers.
“Once upon a time it was true — manufacturing was key to the middle class,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. Today, that’s changed.
Decades of declining industrial jobs have contributed to stagnant wages, widening income disparity and economic malaise in smaller cities and rural communities — conditions that Trump has correctly identified. But in putting so much emphasis on manufacturing, Trump is making too much of a good thing, analysts say.
In addition to earnings lagging behind, the number of factory jobs today remains far behind the service sector. Manufacturing accounts for just 10 percent of overall private sector employment, down from 16 percent in 2000 and 25 percent in 1980.
The Trump administration recently noted that total unfilled job openings now outnumber the total number of jobless Americans, whereas five years ago there were two unemployed persons for every job opening. That’s not so for blue-collar workers, however. Unemployed workers in manufacturing and construction still significantly outnumber job openings.
Trump now faces a weaker outlook for U.S. and global manufacturing, in part dimmed by trade uncertainties and softer economies in Europe and China. That will make it tougher for the president to trumpet his successes in Ohio, Michigan and other industrial states key to his re-election. Moreover, the nation’s trade deficit in goods has surged to a record high on his watch.
“We had a bit of a tailwind, but I do think things are slowing down,” said Jim Hodges, a former South Carolina governor who advises manufacturers and other firms in the state. In recent years, South Carolina has attracted global manufacturers such as BMW and Samsung. But for manufacturing on the whole, Hodges said, “you just haven’t seen as much in terms of wage increases.”