Can Trump Really Bring Back Manufacturing Jobs?

“I will bring jobs back from China. I will bring jobs back from Japan. I will bring jobs back from Mexico. I’m going to bring jobs back and I’ll start bringing them back very fast.”

Throughout President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign, he repeatedly promised that he would bring back a host of manufacturing jobs back to the States. It’s a message that resonated with working class voters across the country, and one that ultimately helped him win the presidency in an unprecedented upset. The fall of labor-intensive commodity manufacturing in recent decades and the expansion of super-productive advanced manufacturing have left millions of working-class whites feeling abandoned, irrelevant, and angry. Trump was able to harness this anger, located primarily in the Rust Belt, to become President. Since 2000, millions of workers in this region have been laid off and lost work that payed as much as $25/hour with multiple benefits.

Trump lists on his campaign website four ways he would fix trade with China to keep jobs and factories in America.These include “declaring China a currency manipulator, ending its intellectual property violations, eliminating its illegal export subsidies and lowering the U.S. corporate tax rate to 15% to stop businesses from moving abroad. He also floated a plan to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese exports to the U.S. in a meeting with the New York Times editorial board last month.”

While these fixes may or may not make sense in theory, bringing them back would be much more complicated. Factory jobs haven’t just disappeared because of trade deals and imports and foreign tariffs. America, over the past 20 years, has lost over 5 million manufacturing jobs. The rapid decrease in these occupations led to many believing in Trump’s notion that America really doesn’t make anything anymore. However, this just is not true. The majority (86%!) of  what consumers buy are goods and services that are made in the States. Two-thirds of durable goods purchased in the United States are made here, and more than three-fourths of non-durable goods are American-made, according to a study by two San Francisco Federal Reserve economists. America is making more goods than ever before, even more than when America was still “great.” The difference now is that it doesn’t take as many workers as it once did to make them.

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The reason for this decline isn’t because China, Mexico, or any other country is stealing our jobs. Its because of the rapid increase of technology and productivity. If one looked at the global manufacturing output, they would be able to see that it has been increasing on a yearly basis. However, simultaneously, the amount of jobs worldwide has been decreasing. This trend isn’t just occurring in America, either. It’s happening all over the globe, as countries are becoming more advanced and are creating technology that is effectively taking the place of potential workers:

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It’s hard to envision a scenario where Trump could somehow bring back these manufacturing jobs. The sector has been increasing in productivity over years, and is now higher than it has ever been, despite the fact that there are fewer jobs. And even if more manufacturing took place in the US, it wouldn’t bring back many of these occupations, since the labor is increasingly being done by robots. According to Boston Consulting Group, it costs barely $8 an hour to use a robot for spot welding in the auto industry, compared to $25 for a worker—and the gap is only going to widen as technology becomes more efficient. Furthermore, back in 1980, it took about 25 jobs to create $1 million in output. Today, it only takes 5 to create the same output. The amount of bodies demanded and needed for productive work simply is not as high today as it was in the past.

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This new wave of automation isn’t just affecting manufacturing jobs, either. For instance, consider the truck driving industry. According to NPR, truck driving is currently the most popular job in 29 states. Truck driving isn’t a career that is highly sought after, but one that remains available and pays well. Unlike a plethora of other jobs that have declined in recent years, truck driving has remained immune to the forces that have elbowed out different lines of work. However, this space is now in danger as well. Google, Tesla and Uber are all working on self-driving vehicles, including those that make long-haul journeys. If the truck driving industry does in fact become automated, then many great positives will come from it. From a company’s standpoint, it wouldn’t have to account for long mandatory breaks drivers need after spending hours on the road. Road safety would also improve, as up to 4,000 lives each year are lost in car accidents with trucks, must of which are due to user error.

The arrival of driverless cars won’t benefit all people, however. Just like in manufacturing, jobs will be lost, and people will suffer. In the US, up to 3.5 million drivers and 5.2 million additional personnel who work directly within the industry would be out of a job. According to another study, “the coming wave of technological breakthroughs endangers up to 47% of total employment in the US.” When looking at these facts, its clear to see that the work jobs that we have “lost” aren’t going to come back anytime soon. Instead of preaching how he plans on bringing them back to the US, Trump should really be focused on implementing some kind of system that retrains people who have been replaced by technology so that they remain ready to be employed. (Our last President recognized this, and helped pass the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act as a potential solution, FYI).The individuals who do believe that Trump is going to bring back these “stolen” jobs are in for a very rude awakening over the next 4 years.


  1. Really nice post. Could have brought out the digital aspects a bit stronger, but solid contribution.

  2. fernaneq4 · ·

    I think this ties in well with the discussion and videos we watched last class! As much as trump supporters want to believe he will bring back jobs to America, the reality is technology may be the one to blame for the jobs being gone in the first place. I would not even blame technology but the deeper root of our education system. It’s interesting you brought up the truck driving industry because I never really think of it. They may still have a while before machines can drive those huge cargo trucks — I’m not sure many people would trust no one behind the wheel of those. You used a lot of great sources and I enjoyed reading your article. Great post!

  3. I think you make many interesting points here and actually in current events, there’s a super relevant story to your article. Recently, Trump has “saved” 1000 jobs from moving to Mexico from the Carrier Company out of the 2100 potential jobs that are moving there. The average US Carrier working was making around 70K while a Mexican worker made 3 dollars an hour. I think the scariest thing is that we do not know the logistics and details of the deal that Trump made with Carrier. If Trump gave some benefits or bargained with a private company, it sets a very bad precedent to all the other companies who might try to leverage against the government. This move has already set Trump as stepping over the boundaries of how much reach the government has. On the other hand, some of Trump’s promise like reducing corporate tax from 35% to 15% could actually help save jobs (then you get into the debate about the lost tax money that the government could spend). I think Trump will try to keep on his promise, but I hope he does not do anything hasty.

  4. michaelahoff · ·

    Love a post that’s chock full of facts like this one. And I really agree with Evan. There needs to be a longer term social solution to these sorts of problems than one off negotiations that set questionable precedents.

  5. dabettervetter · ·

    Wow Ike, you clearly have done your research! I also agree with Evan and Michael – I am curious to see how this deal with Carrier is the beginning of this idea or maybe the only action he will make. It will be interesting to see the specifics of this deal with Carrier and how it will affect other businesses. In light of our last class about technology taking over jobs, I am curious to see how jobs will be created in the future with the loss of positions to technology.

  6. cattybradley · ·

    Interesting post – really highlights some of our conversation on a world without work. I saw an article today on CNN covering a report from China saying how Trump’s plan won’t work. The post outlines how technology will prevent jobs from being moved back to the US and how companies prices (for technology products) would increase greatly if they had to be back in the US – leaving a gap for other brands/products to rise in popularity. Experts speculated that this post from China was a PR stunt. Worldwide technology is diminishing manufacturing jobs traditionally held by lower middle class, so it really isn’t a matter of getting jobs back. Trump (and the United States at large) need to pivot, look forward rather than backward, and plan for a future with new jobs.

  7. Great post! I really appreciated how fact based and well researched this was! You used a lot of sources, which I think really contributed to the solid analysis. I know that a lot of people want to believe that Trump will bring jobs back to the USA, but the facts truly argue for the other side. Technology is certainly a major player in this this flood of jobs leaving oversees over the last decade. I don’t think that this is going to change anytime soon. If Trump really wants to bring jobs back to the USA I think he is asking the wrong question. Financially, it makes more sense to take these jobs oversees becasue of the cheaper level and the tech know how. I think if we really want to bring jobs back here we have to ask how are we going to reform the general education system in order to form a “new” generation of workers with skills which are malleable and productive for the future. I really liked your post! Great job!

  8. I have really liked your post, really good work. I would agree completely with the argumentation. I actually like a lot the topic of employment policies and economic development. In my opinion, the only possible solution comes across the re-education of the labor force. I mean, it is impossible to bring back those jobs and the only solution is to relocate the working force in the so called Sheltered sectors. This sectors are characterized by the fact that the labor force is trained in a way that they have a very unique set of skills, that could be nation wide, sector wide, or even only focused in the company. With this kind of formation, the fleeing of jobs becomes harder, both in terms of mechanical substitution and/or Offshoring.
    To give real examples. A shelter sector could be the German engineering, the best of its kind and very specialized in heavy industry. The workers of this sector have a very unique set of skills and therefore their bargaining power against offshoring.
    This is the kind of sectors that the developed economies should focus its population, in the highly and medium skilled jobs. The read that we did the other day about the mechanization of the economy suggested that another kind of sectors would be the creative kind. And probably they are right, but it think these are harder to find and it is also harder to train the population in being creative.
    Finally I would say that there has been already countries that have started with this process, one of them is Germany. But the most interesting in this case would be Denmark, they have already started introducing labor policies to train the future generations in those sectors they believe are going to be shelterd.

  9. Great post. Love the information you shared.

    My opinion is that manufacturing jobs are not going away. Just changing. We are going to see more high tech manufacturing and those jobs are going to require different skills. That means that it is time to retrain the workforce and this is where the investment should be made.

    One of my favorite podcasts (Marketplace) posted about the costs of goods if they were made in the US. Pretty interesting:

  10. This reminds me a lot of the class discussion we had about the fear of humans losing jobs to better technology. I don’t necessarily think Trump can “bring back” the manufacturing jobs we supposedly “lost” to overseas countries if most of these jobs have simply just changed with better technology. Better technology is going to required educated people with the proper skills to handle this technology and so education might be a place Trump may want to focus on more if he wants to revitalize manufacturing labor in America.

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