In an election focused on jobs, President Barack Obama can boast of crossing one milestone: the longest stretch of employment gains in manufacturing in almost two decades.
The BGOV Barometer shows U.S. factory positions have grown since early 2010, arresting a slide that began toward the end of the 1990s. It’s the best showing since the era of Bill Clinton, the only president in the last 30 years to leave office with more factory jobs than when he began.
“The gain in manufacturing jobs is certainly helpful, it is one way to show we’re moving forward,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor and director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “President Obama has to create a psychology all over the country that things are getting better. This is a piece explaining that idea.”
Obama and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney have visited factories to promise voters they can boost the labor market, which would accelerate consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy. The U.S. has made up 4.1 million of the 8.8 million overall jobs lost as a result of the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, with unemployment exceeding 8 percent for 43 consecutive months, a post-World War II record.
The revival of factory employment may matter most in battleground states including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Madonna said. Obama is leading Romney in Ohio “by a larger margin than many of us had thought possible, to a great extent because of the auto industry bailout,” he said, so “saving auto jobs is an agenda the president can push in such places.”
In a larger context, factory jobs are rebounding off a low base, and an employment level of 12 million in August is down from 17.9 million in 1990. Even so, gains in all except three months since February 2010 provide “reason to believe manufacturing employment may have turned the corner,” said Muir Macpherson, a Bloomberg Government economist in Washington who analyzed the government data on factory jobs.
“This is the first sustained increase we’ve seen in a long time,” Macpherson said. A continuation of the trend may mean factory employment by the end of a second term for Obama would be higher than when he took office in 2009, putting him in the company of Clinton, he said. The progress so far also contrasts with the job losses seen during the recovery from the 2001 recession, when George W. Bush was president, he said.
One area where the Obama administration can take credit for the pickup is for “not getting in the way of the renaissance in the natural-gas industry,” said Thomas Duesterberg, former chief executive officer of Arlington, Virginia-based Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI. “It could become a very important contributor to growth in manufacturing and manufacturing-related employment,” he said.
More jobs at factories are mainly an outcome of longer-term trends including rising productivity and innovation, a weaker dollar and free trade agreements, he said.
“There’s something of a revival in American manufacturing employment,” said Duesterberg, executive director of Aspen Institute’s Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century program. “We’re done with the reduction phase and into the expansion phase. Given the many difficulties in the U.S. and global economy, it’s reassuring that we’ve achieved the job growth that is taking place.”
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