“Do we make anything in this country anymore?”
It’s a commonly heard complaint, understandable given the unceasing flow of stories about plant closings and layoffs and the flood of everyday goods emanating from somewhere else – consumer electronics and toys from China, clothing from Bangladesh and Central America.
But we still make stuff in this country, a lot of stuff, and a lot of people are still employed making it. In Pierce County alone, about 17,000 direct jobs are in manufacturing, at facilities and companies many of us recognize – aircraft components at Boeing, kraft paper at Simpson, candy at Brown & Haley, tugs at Martinac – and at hundreds of smaller companies anonymous to the public but important players in their industries and niches.
Manufacturing enjoyed something of a revival, at least in terms of attention from the political sector, in 2012. Candidates for office at the federal and state level preached the importance of manufacturing and the need for policies to encourage its growth.
But that’s just politicians saying what they think the electorate wants to hear. Does American manufacturing deserve that infatuation? Does manufacturing matter?
Political pontification isn’t a good indicator, but here’s one that is: Apple Computer.
Apple Computer CEO Tim Cook recently made the rounds of national media to announce that the company will assemble one of its lines of Mac computers in the U.S. starting next year.
In an interview with NBC, Cook said Apple products such as the iPhone already have significant made-in-America content, including processors and the glass. “We’ve been working for years at doing more and more in the United States.”
Cook also told Bloomberg Businessweek that the company will spend more than $100 million on ramping up production in the U.S., although the company won’t be doing the manufacturing itself.
Neither Cook nor Apple have commented much beyond that as to the reasons why, leading to speculation ranging from fending off criticism of working conditions at contract manufacturing operations in China to rising production costs there to the cost of shipping.
But Cook did speak to the question of why not produce in America. “It’s not so much about price, it’s about the skills,” he told NBC. “Over time there are skills associated with manufacturing that have left the U.S., not necessarily people but the education system stopped producing them.”
He added, “The consumer electronics world was really never here. It’s not a matter of bringing it back, it’s a matter of starting it here.”
That’s not exactly true, at least not if your definition of the consumer electronics industry includes the decades when the U.S. had a robust radio-and-TV industry.
But it is true that the U.S. is no longer much of a player in the production of such devices, which is why Apple’s move and what it means matter.
It’s not just the direct jobs and the multiplier effects through suppliers and vendors. It’s also maintaining the expertise needed for the next generation of innovation – much the way know-how at Washington companies making planes and boats combined with experience in working with composite materials give this state a presence in the future of those technologies and industries.
The lost skills Cook refers to will matter not just in computers and mobile devices but television, a consumer-electronics segment Apple has its eye on. The investment of $100 million – a small sum for a company with $156.5 billion in revenue in its most recent fiscal year – isn’t going to singlehandedly rescue American manufacturing.
More significant than the dollars involved is that it’s Apple spending them on a segment largely written off as irretrievably lost. If Apple, a magnet of attention for its trend-setting and innovation, believes American consumer-electronics manufacturing has a future, a lot of other decision-makers at all types of American companies are going to decide the idea is worth a serious look.Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.