A sure sign that the American economy has rebooted: the return of manufacturing jobs to the Rust Belt.
Another sure sign of new business realities: Today's assembly-line jobs pay the same as other unskilled positions -- around minimum wage.
About a quarter-million factory jobs have been created in the past 16 months, the first sustained increase in manufacturing since 1997, The Washington Post reports. With unemployment persistently high across much of the industrial Midwest, there's no shortage of applicants for these positions. More than 1,000 people lined up outside a Hoover vacuum plant in Ohio this week for a chance to make small appliances.
"Everybody had written off the manufacturing sector and the Rust Belt, but now the manufacturing sector is the shining star of the U.S. recovery," Mark Perry, a professor at the University of Michigan at Flint and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Post.
Those Ohio jobs and others like them are shifting from China to the United States for a number of reasons. Labor costs are increasing in China and decreasing here. China's currency is increasing in value and the dollar is falling, making American exports cheaper. It can take months to move a product from a Chinese factory to an American retail store or online distribution center, but just one week to get an American-made product from the assembly line to a consumer's hands, making it much easier to manage inventory and respond to customer demand.
And then there's this discovery by Ben Suarez, founder and chief executive of home product maker Suarez Corp. Industries: An American-made product will sell 30 percent better here than an identical product manufactured in China just by featuring a "Made in the U.S.A." label.
But customers won't buy that identical American-made product if it costs twice as much. So the union wage scale that dominated this country's manufacturing sector for decades, offering more than $20 per hour plus gold-plated health care and pensions, has gone out the door. High school graduates with minimal work experience can no longer expect wage premiums for pulling a lever or packing a box.
The return of more jobs, and the opportunity to put more Americans back to work, is a delicate balancing act. If union leaders try to flex their atrophied muscles by demanding higher entry-level wages and more worker protections, those increased costs would make any American-made product suddenly uncompetitive. Manufacturing jobs would start disappearing again.
It's good news that more Americans are getting back to work. For both the long-term unemployed and unskilled, younger workers, it's a chance to join the work force. Nobody stays in a minimum-wage job for very long. With more experience and hard work comes more opportunity.
These new jobs do not amount to a life sentence on an assembly line at sweatshop wages, contrary to what union critics might claim. They mark the return of an economic stepping stone that's been missing for too many people, for far too long.