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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

“Hollowing Out” in U.S. Manufacturing: Analysis and Issues for Congress

Marc Levinson
Section Research Manager

The health of the U.S. manufacturing sector has been a long-standing concern of Congress. Although Congress has established a wide variety of tax preferences, direct subsidies, import restraints, and other federal programs with the goal of retaining or recapturing manufacturing jobs, only a small proportion of U.S. workers is now employed in factories. Meanwhile, U.S. factories have stepped up production of goods that require high technological sophistication but relatively little direct labor. Labor productivity in manufacturing, as measured by government data, has grown rapidly, suggesting that the manufacturing sector as a whole remains healthy.

Recent data, however, challenge the belief that the manufacturing sector, taken as a whole, will continue to flourish. Unlike previous expansions, the two most recent cyclical upturns in the U.S. economy have generated few jobs in manufacturing. Moreover, statistics suggest that domestic value represents a diminishing share of the value of U.S. factory output. One interpretation of these data is that manufacturing is “hollowing out” as companies undertake a larger proportion of their high-value work abroad. These developments raise the question of whether the United States will continue to generate highly skilled, high-wage jobs related to advanced manufacturing.

The evidence concerning “hollowing out” is ambiguous, as conceptual issues and statistical deficiencies make it difficult to determine whether the recent decline in manufacturing value added, relative to shipments, is a short-term phenomenon or a long-term trend. Despite improvements in recent years, U.S. statistical agencies still tend to treat manufacturing and services as unrelated economic activities, and it is not clear that existing data series on domestic economic activity, trade, and freight transportation adequately capture changes in the nature of manufacturing, the sources of employment, and the creation of value.

Nonetheless, evidence suggests strongly that physical production activities account for a diminishing share of the final value of manufactured products, with service-related inputs such as research, product development, and marketing becoming more important. Further, the production of many goods is dispersed across multiple locations along global supply chains, making it difficult to determine where value is added. Such shifts pose a challenge to efforts to capture economic value by promoting goods production in the United States.

In the context of national security, the fact that U.S. manufacturers of vital products are critically dependent upon inputs from abroad is frequently a subject of concern. International comparisons indicate that the United States is in no way unique in its dependence on foreign inputs to manufacturing. Although the output of U.S. factories contains a large proportion of foreign value added, many other countries appear to be even more dependent upon foreign value added than is the United States, at least with respect to goods traded in international markets.

Date of Report: April 15, 2013
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R41712
Price: $29.95

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