Perhaps no sector in the U.S. economy generates more angst than manufacturing. Over the past quarter century, manufacturing has hemorrhaged over 5 million jobs. The devastation of many regional economies, particularly in the Midwest, is testament to this decline. If the information sector has been the golden child of the media, manufacturing has been the offspring that we pity but can’t comfortably embrace.
Yet manufacturing remains critically important. Over the period from 1997 to 2012, labor productivity growth in manufacturing—3.3% per year—was a third higher than the rest of the economy. Clearly manufacturing is no technological laggard, accounting in 2012 for 68.9% of all R&D expenditures by U.S. businesses and employing 36% of the nation’s scientists and engineers, the largest share of any industry.
So even as employment has declined or stagnated, the impact of manufacturing on local economies remains profound. Manufacturing has the highest multiplier effect of any sector of the economy. According to the Commerce Department, a dollar of final demand for manufacturing generates $1.33 in output from other sectors of the economy, considerably higher than the multiplier for information ($0.80) and more than twice as high as such fields as retail trade ($0.66) and business services ($0.61). Other estimates place this impact far higher.
The Midwest Revival
Our list of the fastest-growing manufacturing regions differs considerably from our rankings of the best cities for jobs overall, and of the strongest information economies. To avoid the distortions and wild swings that can occur in economies with few industrial jobs, we focused on the 48 metropolitan statistical areas with at least 50,000 manufacturing positions.
As with our other rankings in this series, the list is based on employment growth in the sector over the short-, medium- and long-term, going back to 2005, and we factor in momentum — whether growth is slowing or accelerating. (For a detailed description of our methodology, click here.)
Manufacturing has enjoyed something of a renaissance since 2009 — after 12 years of declines, it has gained back 828,000 jobs. But like everything in economics, or life, the resurgence has not been equally distributed. In sharp contrast to other areas of the economy, the industrial heartland has some real winners.
Grand Rapids-Wyoming, Mich., has boosted its industrial workforce by 29% since 2010 to 110,800 workers, with 5.4% job growth last year alone, placing it first on our list. This growth has been very diversified, with many specialty firms engaged not only in auto parts, but also food, aerospace and defense. The metro area seems to be breaking all the shibboleths ascribed to the “Rust Belt” — unemployment dropped to 3.3% this year, population growth and the birthrate are now well above the national average. For most of our strongest manufacturing economies, however, the real driver has been the recent resurgence in automobile sales, which are now at record levels. Despite all the talk of “peak car” a few years ago, with oil prices in the dumps and the population now once again headed to lower-density areas, driving hit a new peak in 2015 in terms of total vehicle miles traveled.
The next four fastest-growing industrial areas are all auto-dependent, led by second-ranked Elkhart-Goshen, Ind., where the big business is the highly cyclical recreational vehicle industry. Since 2010, industrial employment has grown 37% in the area to 60,500 jobs.
In No. 3 Louisville/Jefferson County, which abuts the border of Indiana and Kentucky, the industrial workforce has expanded 25.6% since 2010 to 60,500 jobs. Like Grand Rapids, its base is widely diversified. The largest industrial employers include Ford, which makes pickup trucks and SUVs at two plants in the area; GE Appliances, whose sale to China’s Haier was just completed; Publishers Printing and spirits maker Brown-Forman Corp.
But the big story, and the big numbers, are in the greater Detroit area, where there are roughly 240,000 manufacturing jobs. About 149,000 of them are in suburban Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, also known as “automation alley,” where the area’s industrial workforce has expanded by 30.6% since 2010, helping it to a fifth-place showing on our list. In fourth place is Detroit-Dearborn-Livonia, where industrial employment surged 27% since 2010.
High-Tech Centers Rebound
Although their growth rates are roughly half those of the auto stars that dominate the top of the list, there has been a healthy recovery in manufacturing jobs in traditional high-tech and aerospace-dominated economies, mostly in the west. No. 6 San Diego-Carlsbad, which, like most metro areas, has lost industrial employment over the past decade, has seen a bit of a rebound since 2010, with an 11.5% expansion to 106,700 jobs concentrated mostly in aerospace and nondurable goods.
No. 7 Denver-Aurora-Lakewood’s industrial workforce has grown 12.7% since 2010 and 3.7% last year alone, while No. 10 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, Ore.-Wash., where Intel recently completed an expansion, has posted industrial job growth of 12.4% since 2010. A $3 billion plant in suburban Hillsboro has spurred a migration of suppliers as well.
Despite concerns about the loss of electronics manufacturing to Asia, there has even been a small surge in industrial employment in high-cost, highly regulated Silicon Valley. After losing tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the wake of the bursting of the dot.com bubble in 2000, No. 19 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara has seen a modest 5.9% upsurge in industrial employment since 2010, helped by the growth of electric vehicle maker Tesla, which now employs about 15,000. The Valley will likely never be the industrial powerhouse it was in decades past (today’s manufacturing employment of 161,900 is still 38% lower than the peak in 2000), but, as firms seek to marry digital technology into the “internet of things,” the area may still continue to produce some real goods, likely before any mass production phase, for the foreseeable future.
The Big Losers: Los Angeles And Chicago
A large number of manufacturing-rich areas are continuing to lose industrial jobs, often at a rapid rate. Nearly a third of the 100 largest manufacturing metro areas registered declines in employment in the last two years. This year’s worst performer is Newark, N.J., where manufacturing employment is off almost 4% since 2013 and more than 6% since 2010.
Perhaps even more disturbing has been the decline of the nation’s two largest agglomerations of industrial jobs, No. 43 Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights and No. 27 Los Angeles-Long Beach. Chicago’s decline can be traced, at least in part, to the decline of its traditional industries, such as steel and metal fabrication. For decades, many of these jobs have disappeared, moved south or abroad, and the decline continues, with jobs down nearly 1.7% since 2010. Since 1990, the area has lost a remarkable 45% of its industrial jobs.
But if Chicago’s loss can be attributed to the overall decline of the old industrial base, Los Angeles’ steady losses have come from a more modern mix of aerospace, design and specialty manufacturing. Since 2010 — despite the rapid growth in many manufacturing areas — Los Angeles has managed to lose an additional 3.37% of its industrial jobs. Over the past 25 years, the Big Orange has seen its once thriving industrial base fall from 785,400 to 356,100 jobs—a decline of almost 55%. In both Chicago and Los Angeles, the decline of manufacturing has accompanied demographic stagnation, high rates of poverty and mediocre overall job growth.
Does Manufacturing Actually Matter?
In many ways, the answer to that question depends on who you are and the structure of your local economy. To be sure, the San Francisco metro area (San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco), despite a mere 35,500 industrial jobs, too few to even make our list, has transformed its economy so dramatically that the loss of industry seems to have had little impact. New York, once a manufacturing mecca, makes the list at No. 30, but now has barely 78,900 industrial jobs. Yet the city continues to outperform most other large metro areas in terms of overall job growth.
In places where other sectors such as information or business services have picked up the slack, the overall impact has not led to regional decline. The old blue collar workforce may have suffered, but the shift to a post-industrial future has not been disastrous for the overall economy.
But few places are as glamorous or alluring as New York or San Francisco, with their appeal to the highly educated, foreign capital and millennial workers. As we can see in Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as many places in the middle of the country, manufacturing still matters, and its decline, or resurgence, remains an issue of paramount importance.
This piece first appeared at Forbes.
Cross-posted at New Geography.