Does America still need manufacturing jobs?

Team Obama is betting big that manufacturing can grow the economy. But arguably, the feds' initiative won't create enough jobs to justify the investment

GM assembly workers install an electric battery in a Chevrolet Volt: The Obama administration has given billions to companies that produce batteries used in electric cars.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook )

The Obama administration is pinning its hopes on the ability of high-tech manufacturing — or "advanced manufacturing" — to spur economic growth and create jobs. Since 2009, the feds have dished out roughly $2.5 billion in stimulus money to dozens of companies involved in the production of lithium-ion batteries, which are used in gadgets and electric cars, in the hopes of capturing what the Department of Energy's Arun Majumdar calls "a large piece of the world's future economic prosperity." Additionally, in June President Obama announced the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a $500 million initiative to boost high-tech manufacturing. Is Team Obama making a good bet?

Yes. Manufacturing is vital to recovery: "Manufacturing is simply this huge engine of job creation," says M.I.T. president Susan Hockfield as quoted in The New York Times. Even when the actual manufacturing is automated, as in the case of lithium-ion batteries, there are loads of behind-the-scenes jobs for researchers, engineers, and contractors. We need to create between 17 milion and 20 million jobs over the next decade for the economy to recover, and "it's very hard to imagine where those jobs are going to come from unless we seriously get busy reinventing manufacturing."

"Does America need manufacturing?"

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But manufacturing won't create that many jobs: The number of jobs created by lithium-ion-battery manufacturing in Michigan is "small relative to the huge plants of Detroit's past," says Jon Gertner in The New York Times. It's unlikely that this new industry will be able to "significantly offset" the jobs lost from the decline in traditional manufacturing. That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile — "if nothing else, the Obama administration's efforts in Michigan reawaken the conversation about industrial policy."

"Does America need manufacturing?"

Well, this may be Obama's best hope: This initiative is one of President Obama's few chances to "stabilize and grow the economy without the help of Congress," says Rebecca Kaplan in The Atlantic. And don't forget, while this isn't a cure-all, it could bring a number of jobs to swing states. Indeed, the president's chances of winning re-election in 2012 may well hinge on his ability to "coax the private sector to partner with government and boost hiring across the country" — particularly in high-tech manufacturing.

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