The Reasons Behind America’s Manufacturing Comeback

Broad-based job growth has led to a manufacturing comeback, suggesting it is becoming cost-effective to manufacture in America again.

Just three years ago, the Labor Department estimated that manufacturing would lose jobs at a rate of 0.6% per year between 2016 and 2026, largely due to automation and trade penetration. But instead of falling, manufacturing employment is rising—and doing so across a broad range of subsectors.

U.S. manufacturing employment defied predictions in 2018, growing by 2.3%—faster than average job growth overall of 1.8%. And that job growth was unusually broad-based, taking place across many manufacturing subsectors, rather than being concentrated in just a few. The 12-month manufacturing Diffusion Index, a measure of the breadth of job growth, rose from 42.1% at the end of 2016 to 80.9% at the end of 2018.

Tech Trends Leading the Way in Manufacturing

Among the many factors driving the expansion are technological advances that are making it cost-effective to manufacture in America again. One is 3D printing, which is making it possible to design parts that are lighter and more efficient, and to produce them several times more quickly and cheaply than ever before.

A second technological trend is the increased adoption of robots, sensors, and computerized production systems which increase the need for more highly-educated workers with skills in computer programming and data analysis. As a result, the benefits of outsourcing manufacturing work to China and other countries with cheaper labor are declining and the benefits of locating in the United States are rising.

A third technological innovation is the fracking revolution and the increase in domestic production of natural gas and shale oil. Low gas and oil prices reduce U.S. production costs and attract manufacturers. Experts say fracking has helped stimulate the manufacturing renaissance.  

A fourth trend is the rise of manufacturing platforms—a response to the increased demand from consumers for variety and customization. According to the findings of our Future of Work Report, many manufacturers are finding it easier to be flexible and responsive to customers by using local, small-batch manufacturing techniques and simplified supply chains, rather than mass-manufacturing abroad.

The Future of Manufacturing Jobs is Here

Occupational Employment Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics highlight additional trends that have transformed manufacturing over the past two decades. For example, more than 100,000 jobs have emerged for inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers–largely the result of increasing emphasis on safety and quality.

New engineering and production standards are emerging as a result of negotiated international agreements, U.S. government regulations, and even voluntary organizations, such as those committed to producing organic products and eliminating BPA. Median annual earnings of inspectors and testers are $37,340, about the same as the median wage for all occupations.  

The number of jobs for Computer Control Programmers and Operators has also grown rapidly, as manufacturing has become more automated. Computer Numerically Controlled Machine Tool Programmers develop programs to control the processing of metal or plastic parts by automatic machine tools. Their median annual wage is $52,550, well above the national median wage for all occupations of $37,690.

Manufacturing Occupations with the Highest Job Gains, 1997-2017Change in Total Employment
Machine Tool Cutting Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic212,820
Molding, Coremaking, and Casting Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic120,870
Food Batchmakers119,670
Inspectors, Testers, Sorters, Samplers, and Weighers103,420
Computer Control Programmers and Operators80,510
Woodworking Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders75,870
Printing Press Operators47,870
Textile Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders47,090
Extruding, Forming, Pressing, and Compacting Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders46,000
Electrical, Electronics, and Electromechanical Assemblers33,990
Petroleum Pump System Operators, Refinery Operators, and Gaugers33,270
Paper Goods Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders33,130
Plating and Coating Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic32,600
Extruding and Drawing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic32,540
Aircraft Structure, Surfaces, Rigging, and Systems Assemblers24,490
Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators24,360
Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders22,080
Structural Metal Fabricators and Fitters21,990
Slaughterers and Meat Packers20,150
Painters, Transportation Equipment17,980
Manufacturing Occupations with the Highest Job Losses, 1997-2017Change in Total Employment
Textile Machine Operators and Tenders, Winding, Twisting, Knitting, Weaving, and Cutting-115,970
Crushing, Grinding, and Polishing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders-105,370
Tool and Die Makers-63,570
Grinding and Polishing Workers, Hand-50,240
Welding, Soldering, and Brazing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders-44,160
Lathe and Turning Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic-42,780
Drilling and Boring Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic-30,130
Cutters and Trimmers, Hand-29,970
Tool Grinders, Filers, and Sharpeners-26,300
Photographic Process Workers and Processing Machine Operators-24,000
Painting, Coating, and Decorating Workers-18,430
Textile Bleaching and Dyeing Machine Operators and Tenders-14,690
Extruding and Forming Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Synthetic and Glass Fibers-14,020
Chemical Plant and System Operators-12,120
Fabric and Apparel Patternmakers-11,830
Chemical Equipment Operators and Tenders-9,580
Coil Winders, Tapers, and Finishers-8,960
Furniture Finishers-8,730
Shoe and Leather Workers-8,190

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2018 Release

ZipRecruiter data on job openings and job searches point to the new and emerging occupations in the field and show that, in many ways, the future of work is already here. There are growing numbers of openings in even the most novel, cutting-edge manufacturing fields. At any one time in 2018, for example, there were about 45,000 job openings for people with computer-assisted design (CAD) skills, more than 35,000 openings at robotics companies, 25,000 openings at manufacturing platforms, and 4,000 openings at 3D printing companies.

One particularly exciting fact is that even though many of these jobs are quite technical, many do not require advanced education. Typical requirements for manufacturing jobs are on-the-job training or apprenticeships, and in some cases certifications (like a CAD certification). With manufacturers struggling to fill vacancies, many are making substantial investments in on-the-job training. Some are partnering with high schools to transform shop classes into tutorials in modern manufacturing and build the manufacturing workforce of the future. Whatever your education level, now is a great time to be part of the manufacturing comeback.


Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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