A Kinder, Gentler Age...or...The Beginning of the End?

For the first time in recorded U.S. employment history, employment in leisure and hospitality exceeds that of manufacturing.  As of June 2007, there were 14,146,000 workers in the leisure and hospitality sector, in excess of manufacturing's 14,142,000 workers.  By contrast, in 1939, employment in leisure and hospitality was about a fifth that of manufacturing.

To those who fret about the slow decline of our manufacturing sector, this will seem like one more sign that we are losing our edge.  What will we all do when our high-paying manufacturing jobs are gone?  Serve drinks to each other as employees in our expanding leisure and hospitality sector?  

Worse things could happen.

Most of the people who bemoan the loss of manufacturing jobs have never set foot on a production floor. Manufacturing employment is back-breaking dirty work that is often dangerous as well.  One of my grandfathers worked in a shipyard.  The other worked in a steel mill.  The one who worked in a shipyard died of amoebic dysentery at the age of 46.  The water in ships was not all that sanitary in those days, and indeed, still isn't.  The other grandfather made it to retirement, but going through his things a few years back I found an article about a co-worker of his who died of burns in a steel-mill accident.  Even today, the odds of a major injury for a "production worker, all other," a helper in manufacturing, are about 20% in any given year.  I personally thank heaven I don't have to do the work my grandfathers did.

As for such jobs being particularly high-paying, wages in the manufacturing sector are not all that high.  According to the BLS, jobs in the manufacturing sector currently pay about $17.23/hour, comparable to the $17.29/hour of private employment generally.

Nonetheless, if you are concerned, do not despair.  Manufacturing jobs are going overseas because wages there are lower.  But in the countries currently absorbing manufacturing jobs, wages, while low, are rapidly rising.  It's not at all unlikely that our precious manufacturing jobs will come back here in a few years.  Particularly if we don't get smarter about fixing our educational system, our under-educated descendents may well become the low-cost labor supplier to the rest of the world.

My own hope is that robots will one day take over the world's dirty and dangerous manufacturing jobs.  In that golden age, we may indeed end up serving drinks to each other as part of a gargantuan leisure and hospitality sector.  Nothing wrong with that.

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