Factories were humming back to life even before a pledge to revitalize American manufacturing helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency.
But jobs aren’t returning in kind, a reality that will make it tough for Mr. Trump—or anyone—to significantly boost employment in the industrial heartland, as he has pledged to do. Technology and automation have given manufacturing companies the means to function, and even thrive, with fewer employees than ever before.
Manufacturing output is nearing prerecession levels. But about 1.5 million factory jobs—about 20% of positions lost during the downturn—haven’t returned. Manufacturers employed 12.3 million people in November, down from 13.7 million in December 2007, when the recession officially began.
Factory output was flat in November while manufacturing employment fell from the previous month, according to Federal Reserve and Labor Department data. Indeed, factory output has largely bounced back since the recession but manufacturing employment has lagged behind.
Overall the number of positions on U.S. payrolls grew 11% between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and November, when the Labor Department counted about 145 million jobs on nonfarm payrolls. Manufacturing payrolls grew only 5% during that span.
Well-trained workers are in demand. The number of open manufacturing positions is at a 15-year high. But a swath of low-skilled former factory workers seems frozen out of the increasingly high tech sector no matter how fast the economy grows.