For everyone who wants the United States to become a (bigger) manufacturing powerhouse again — so, most people in the U.S., and every member of Congress — a recent report from the Boston Consulting Group is a mixed blessing. On Friday, BCG released its rankings of cost competitiveness in manufacturing around the world, and the U.S. came in second place, after China. It is now more cost effective to produce goods in the U.S. than Brazil, the report found.
The U.S., along with Mexico, is one of the BCG's "rising stars" of global manufacturing, for having "significantly improved relative to nearly all other leading exporters across the globe." At least 300 companies have brought their manufacturing back to the U.S. from overseas, because "it just makes economic sense," BCG senior partner Hal Sirkin, a co-author of the report, tells Yahoo News. "The gap is closing and, when you add the transportation costs, it makes a lot more sense for a lot of products to be made in the U.S. than in China."
That sounds great, right? But remember what made China so alluring to manufacturers in the first place — low labor costs, lax environmental standards, and overworked factory workers? Here's BCG's explanation for why the U.S. is back in the manufacturing game:
The key reasons were stable wage growth, sustained productivity gains, steady exchange rates, and a big energy-cost advantage that is largely driven by the 50 percent fall in natural-gas prices since large-scale production of U.S. shale gas began in 2005. [BCG]
Another way of saying that: Fracking, foreign exchange rates, and that "stable wage growth," which Reuters calls "a euphemism for the fact that, in inflation-adjusted terms, industrial wages here are lower today than they were in the 1960s even though worker productivity has doubled over the same period of time." The only one of those factors that isn't controversial is the stronger yuan.
As this chart from The New York Times shows, the jobs that have been created in the post–Great Recession recovery have skewed toward the low end of the pay scale:
Most manufacturing jobs pay pretty decently, especially compared with fast food service. But as we celebrate the return of the American manufacturing sector, it's worth remembering that it's only partly because "Made in China" is becoming more expensive — "Made in the USA" is also becoming cheaper, for better and for worse.