12/31/2012 02:21 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

Lost Manufacturing Jobs: Good Riddance?


There is no question that the U.S. has lost an enormous number of manufacturing jobs to lower wage countries. These countries include mega economies like China and a number of smaller countries such as Vietnam that have large numbers of workers willing to work for low wages. Given the current high unemployment rate in the United States, it is understandable that politicians point out that we need to regain manufacturing jobs and that the loss of jobs to other countries is a major problem for the U.S.

But before we accept the loss of many low skilled manufacturing jobs as a major negative for the U.S. and that it should be halted and perhaps even reversed, it is important to put it in the context of what we know about the social impact of simple, repetitive work. The fact is that this type of work often has numerous negative impacts on both individuals and society in general. This was highlighted recently by the news about riots taking place in Foxconn's Chinese factories.

Even in China, low wage repetitive work can create major conflicts between workers and corporations and be destructive to society. We learned this long ago in the U.S. and it resulted in major U.S. corporations offshoring repetitive, manufacturing work or upgrading it through technology to the point where it became skilled work. In terms of social sustainability, repetitive low skilled work is a major negative. It causes employee dissatisfaction and turnover, stress-related mental and physical health problems, dysfunctional union/management relationships and large social class differences in wealth.

The bottom line is that instead of complaining about offshoring manufacturing jobs, we should be focusing on keeping and creating the right kind of manufacturing jobs. What kinds of jobs are those? In essence, I am talking about the kind of knowledge work jobs that exist in the high-tech world and the advanced manufacturing plants of some major manufacturers. We can only keep these jobs in the U.S. if we have a skilled workforce who can meet the challenges that knowledge, information technology, and engineering present.

It all comes down to having a well-educated workforce who can add significant value to products and services. People should design and build machines that manufacture products and they should maintain and service them; they should not do simple, repetitive manufacturing work. It will be very interesting to see what kind of jobs Apple creates when it moves some of its manufacturing of computers to the U.S. from Asia. Hopefully, it will create "good jobs" and, of course, pay competitive wages.

Although keeping low-skilled, repetitive work in the U.S. can provide a short-term way to reduce unemployment, it is not what we should be focusing on. As China is finding out, this kind of work has a significant downside and is not a sustainable, economic model for countries that value human sustainability and a high-quality of work life.

Crossposted from