02/03/2014 10:50 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Manufacturing Jobs Remain an Imperative -- And We Still Need Millions More

Last week, BloombergBusinessweek ran an article entitled "Factory Jobs Are Gone. Get Over It" by guest columnist, Charles Kenny. Even the title of the piece seemed to us to be pejorative, and we feel that a much more honest assessment of the continued imperative for a robust American manufacturing sector is owed to American workers.

No reputable economist disputes the very positive economic and social multiplier effects of manufacturing jobs versus the service jobs available on average today, especially jobs in leisure & hospitality and health care and social assistance where most new service jobs have been created over the last twenty years. Mr. Kenny decried factory jobs for their lack of 'awesomeness', and yet the three of us know very few workers -- both entry-level and more advanced -- who wouldn't much prefer safe factory jobs over low-paying hotel and health services jobs.

We also know that manufacturers are responsible for more than 70 percent of all business R&D. When manufacturing materially declines, so does innovation, and no surprise, the U.S. now has a dramatically rising trade deficit in advanced technology products.

Precisely because the U.S. alone as a G-20 nation has no manufacturing policy, 48 million of the nation's 154 million jobs in the civilian labor force are still low-wage jobs paying $16.00 per hour or less. And as for the so-called canary in the coal mine, 43% of all of the new U.S. jobs created since 2010 are similarly low-wage jobs.

Sure, to quote Mr. Kenny, "developing countries have taken over much of the low-skilled, low-capital production once done in the U.S.," but through illegal currency manipulation and through the combination of illegal financial, tax, environmental and buy-domestic direct and indirect subsidies, these countries, especially China, have also stolen at least 6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs that were decidedly not low-skilled and not low-capital.

We are not people who cry over spilled milk, and we're certainly not naïve about the challenges of maintaining a robust manufacturing sector in what are now fully globalized markets. But we also can't stand by while uninformed pundits (and economists) suggest that manufacturing jobs aren't still good jobs and that their loss offshore can be made up by exported "computer software, movies and consulting and legal services," as then White House senior economic advisor Larry Summers also foolishly contended on June 19, 2009.

Right now, with the U.S. manufacturing sector employing less than 10 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force, the sector is not even half the size it needs to be for our nation to again have a balanced, high-growth economy. It's actually far more important that policy makers focus on our manufactured goods trade deficit, with its myriad adverse economic, social and defense implications, than on the more nuanced federal deficit.

In our careers, the three of us have all worked producing things, and millions of our brothers and sisters still do so every day across the country. We should never demean their work, and as a diverse nation of 316 million people we absolutely can't prosper without it.

Co- Authors:
Leo W. Gerard
International President of the United Steelworkers and a member of the executive council of the AFL-CIO; Co-chair of the independent Task Force on Jobs Creation

Michael Wessel
Commissioner, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission