Must-Read: Justin Fox: About That U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance…: “After a brutal period of downsizing and reorganizing…

…the U.S. manufacturing sector has become the most competitive in the world. Output per worker is higher than in any other major manufacturing country. Labor costs per unit of output are lower than in Brazil, Canada and Germany, and only slightly higher than in China. What’s more, writes Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics in the new report from which the above facts are taken, ‘the U.S. is ‘gifted’ with a stable regulatory framework, a flexible labor market, low energy costs and access to a large domestic market.’

So that’s great! Time for a manufacturing renaissance, right?… But… there are few signs of it actually happening yet. Yes, there are the almost 900,000 manufacturing jobs added in the U.S. since early 2010. But it’s important to see that for what it is–a modest rebound after a spectacular collapse…. Why isn’t reshoring taking off? Daco, of Oxford Economics, stressed that such shifts don’t happen overnight. ‘It takes quite a bit of time for a company to modify its supply chain,’ he said in a phone conversation. He also noted that ‘nearshoring’ to Mexico, where unit labor costs are still substantially lower than in the U.S., remains popular….

The countries of South and Southeast Asia… have labor forces that run into the hundreds of millions of workers, so the gradual shift of certain industries to other Asian low-cost countries is likely to continue…. Clothing- and furniture-making, for example, are unlikely to return to the U.S. in a big way. But in capital-goods manufacturing, labor costs matter less than technology and the existence of a local ecosystem of suppliers, consultants and skilled workers that can take a while to put together. In their rush to offshore, then, U.S. manufacturers may have permanently destroyed their ability to make certain products here. As Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih wrote in a 2009 Harvard Business Review article:

In making their decisions to outsource, executives were heeding the advice du jour of business gurus and Wall Street: Focus on your core competencies, off-load your low-value-added activities, and redeploy the savings to innovation, the true source of your competitive advantage. But in reality, the outsourcing has not stopped with low-value tasks like simple assembly or circuit-board stuffing. Sophisticated engineering and manufacturing capabilities that underpin innovation in a wide range of products have been rapidly leaving too. As a result, the U.S. has lost or is in the process of losing the knowledge, skilled people, and supplier infrastructure needed to manufacture many of the cutting-edge products it invented.

This loss of capability could be what we’re seeing evidence of in the trade data. If so, a true U.S. manufacturing renaissance may be a long time coming.