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Chasing manufacturing jobs? Good luck.


Every civic-minded American believes that prosperity is simply a matter of a factory coming to his town. Not one one that belches pollution, but “light industry” or “clean manufacturing.”

While a few such factories exist and a new one will come to the Ozarks once in a while, I’m doubtful that a policy directed at reeling in these factories should be a major part of an economic development strategy.

In his very brief essay, “Fetish for making things ignore real work,” John Kay breaks down the purchase price of an iPhone, which (ignoring the carrier subsidy, or what Verizon or ATT discounts it to you to get you to sign a contract) is about $700. He says the valuable parts–the camera and flash drive, not likely to be made by Ozarks labor–account for about $200. The assembly and the cheap parts amount to about $20. Most of the rest of the purchase price is returned to those brilliant people who designed the iPhone, its operating system, and its advertising and their shareholders.

Kay’s main argument is relevant to the local economic development director and chamber of commerce committee:

Where will the jobs come from in a service-based economy, manufacturing fetishists ask?

From doing here the things that cannot be done better elsewhere, either because of the particularity of the skills they require, or because these activities can only be performed close to home.

Manufacturing was once a principal source of low-skilled employment but this can no longer be true in advanced economies.

Most unskilled jobs in developed countries are necessarily in personal services. Workers in China can assemble your iPhone but they cannot serve you lunch, collect your refuse or bathe your grandmother.

If you’re wondering where in the USA the good technical jobs are, and which regions are experiencing growth, check out “The emerging technical, professional and scientific sector” by Rob Sentz. Missouri and Arkansas are losers, though the Kansas City area has significant growth.

If we want to have good jobs in the Ozarks, we have to invest our own money and energy. A big and difficult part of this challenge lies in raising expectations of our children, our schools, our civic and business organizations and our elected officials.

Otherwise, the best that many of our children can hope for is a job serving lunches, collecting refuse and bathing their elderly parents and grandparents.

About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

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