Twenty years ago close to 4,000 people worked for the major mills in Thomaston, Georgia. Spinning children’s clothing for Carter’s and sheets for J.C. Penney, Sears and Walmart, the town was humming.
By 2001, the factories and their middle class wages had gone.
Here though is where the story gets a bit more complicated.
The Return of Manufacturing
The new kind of U.S. factory requires many fewer jobs and much more technology. So yes, Standard Textile will be making 7.8 million of Marriott’s new towels in Thomaston. However, they will need fewer than 150 new jobs. Instead of working the assembly line, their employees will oversee the machines that “spin, scour and weave cotton.”
Illustrated perfectly by fivethirtyeight, production is growing much faster than employment:
One recent NBER paper explains that entire communities suffer from a factory closing. Finding few jobs that need their skills, unemployed workers accept lower paying service sector positions and require additional government assistance. In addition, spending less, their lower income creates a community ripple of less demand. As a result, overall wages in the entire area descend.
Reflecting some of the switch from factory jobs to lower paying service sector positions, you can see below that manufacturing employment has dipped while retail is up.
Our Bottom Line: Manufacturing Jobs
Manufacturing output and manufacturing jobs require two separate discussions. While the former is experiencing a renaissance, the latter requires more of our attention.
My sources and more: The perfect triad of complements for really understanding manufacturing, I recommend fivethirtyeight for a media overview, this superb academic perspective on “the China shock” and this Washington Post story on Thomaston, Georgia.