For a long time, Americans have channeled their fear about China’s factories into an exasperated, four-word refrain: They’re stealing our jobs! By offering low-wage competition to U.S. workers, the Chinese picked off low-end manufacturing work for multinational corporations, whether it was stitching shoes for Nike or assembling iPads for Apple.
In the last few years, though, the anxiety has shifted a bit. Instead of worrying we’ll be undercut on the price of manual labor, the concern is we could actually be out-competed in higher-end markets. You hear it when Democrats like President Obama talk about China winning the race on green jobs. And it came to my mind this week, thanks to a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek on China’s growing prowess in heavy industry.
While China transformed itself into the world’s top exporter by building light goods and electronics, the biggest chunk of its exports are now large, high-margin goods such as ships, locomotives, and construction equipment, as illustrated in the Businessweek graph above.
Not only are China’s capitalists moving in this direction, but they’re getting a hand from the government. As Businessweek reports, “Equipment manufacturing, shipbuilding, and cars are among the industries slated to receive $2.5 billion from the government this year to improve technology and product quality.”
This should be of some concern to U.S. policy makers. Heavy machinery and transportation equipment are at the heart of the U.S. industrial base. They’re part of our Big Six manufacturing sectors, along with food, chemicals, electronics, and metal products. These are businesses where labor is a relatively small part of the overall cost of making the product, and where America’s technologically advanced factories have traditionally given us an edge. If they founder, there’s not much left to replace them.
Read more. [Image: Bloomberg Businessweek]