Growth In Manufacturing Tempered By Low-Wage Jobs

Jan 7, 2015
Originally published on January 7, 2015 6:17 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

New cars, and plenty of them, are driving off the sales lot - 16.5 million in the last year, in fact. It's the best performance for the U.S. auto industry since 2006.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama, who famously bailed out Chrysler and General Motors, celebrated the industry's rebound today at a Ford Motor Plant in Wayne, Michigan.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Plants like this one built more than just cars, they built the middle class in this country. And that was worth fighting for.

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BLOCK: The administration sees the resurgent auto industry as part of a broader turnaround for U.S. manufacturing. But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the gains aren't necessarily being shared with America's factory workers.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama's backdrop today was a unionized assembly plant in Michigan; the traditional epicenter of the U.S. auto industry. But you might get a better feel for what's happening in that industry by traveling south to a nonunion parts plant in a place like Selma, Alabama. That's where Latasha Irby works making foam car seats for a Hyundai supplier. After nine years on the job, Irby makes $11.33 an hour.

LATASHA IRBY: You would think that if you're working for an auto manufacturer, you would get more. I mean, we're getting paid like Walmart wages.

HORSLEY: Irby's story is not unusual. While the U.S. auto industry has added hundreds of thousands of jobs since bottoming out during the recession, many of those jobs are in nonunion parts plants where pay and benefits are typically lower. Auto suppliers increasingly rely on temporary firms to staff their factories. As a result, auto workers no longer command the premium pay they once did.

Sarah Leberstein, who wrote about the trend for the National Employment Law Center, sees a similar decline in pay for other factory workers.

SARAH LEBERSTEIN: New manufacturing jobs simply aren't as good as the ones that we've lost in recent years.

HORSLEY: For most of the last decade, factory workers, on average, earned less than other private sector employees. One out of four manufacturing workers now makes less than $12 an hour.

LEBERSTEIN: That's just not a living wage. Workers aren't earning enough to support their families. So this really calls into question whether manufacturing jobs are living up to their promise. States and local governments are throwing a lot of money in tax breaks and subsidies to manufacturers that are promising good jobs, but too often are not delivering.

HORSLEY: The Obama administration has actively promoted manufacturing, setting up several specialized institutes for that purpose. And U.S. factories did add more than 170,000 jobs last year. White House economist Jason Furman still highlights that as though factory jobs paid what they used to.

JASON FURMAN: You have seen over at least the past year, an improvement in the mix. The jobs that are being added a faster pace are in higher-wage sectors like construction and manufacturing.

HORSLEY: To be sure, a strong manufacturing sector has other benefits, including above-average investment in research and development. And as the broader job market improves, wages should start climbing as well. But factory work is no longer the sure-fire gateway to the middle class it once was. That's something for political leaders to think about before donning their hard hats and safety goggles. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.