Walmart today announced bold commitments to increase domestic sourcing of the products it sells and help veterans find jobs when they come off active duty. Speaking at the National Retail Federation’s annual BIG Show, Walmart U.S. President and CEO Bill Simon also announced the company is helping part-time associates who want to be full time, make that transition.
The very scale of the place seemed to underscore its irrelevance. Six factory buildings, each one the size of a large suburban shopping mall, line up neatly in a row. The parking lot in front of them measures a mile long and has its own traffic lights, built to control the chaos that once accompanied shift change. But in 2011, Appliance Park employed not even a tenth of the people it did in its heyday. The vast majority of the lot’s spaces were empty; the traffic lights looked forlorn.
In 1951, when General Electric designed the industrial park, the company’s ambition was as big as the place itself; GE didn’t build an appliance factory so much as an appliance city. Five of the six factory buildings were part of the original plan, and early on Appliance Park had a dedicated power plant, its own fire department, and the first computer ever used in a factory. The facility was so large that it got its own ZIP code (40225). It was the headquarters for GE’s appliance division, as well as the place where just about all of the appliances were made.
By 1955, Appliance Park employed 16,000 workers. By the 1960s, the sixth building had been built, the union workforce was turning out 60,000 appliances a week, and the complex was powering the explosion of the U.S. consumer economy.
The arc that followed is familiar. Employment kept rising through the ’60s, but it peaked at 23,000 in 1973, 20 years after the facility first opened. By 1984, Appliance Park had fewer employees than it did in 1955. In the midst of labor battles in the early ’90s, GE’s iconic CEO, Jack Welch, suggested that it would be shuttered by 2003. GE’s current CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, tried to sell the entire appliance business, including Appliance Park, in 2008, but as the economy nosed over, no one would take it. In 2011, the number of time-card employees—the people who make the appliances—bottomed out at 1,863. By then, Appliance Park had been in decline for twice as long as it had been rising.
Yet this year, something curious and hopeful has begun to happen, something that cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers. On February 10, Appliance Park opened an all-new assembly line in Building 2—largely dormant for 14 years—to make cutting-edge, low-energy water heaters. It was the first new assembly line at Appliance Park in 55 years—and the water heaters it began making had previously been made for GE in a Chinese contract factory.
On March 20, just 39 days later, Appliance Park opened a second new assembly line, this one in Building 5, to make new high-tech French-door refrigerators. The top-end model can sense the size of the container you place beneath its purified-water spigot, and shuts the spigot off automatically when the container is full. These refrigerators are the latest versions of a style that for years has been made in Mexico.
Another assembly line is under construction in Building 3, to make a new stainless-steel dishwasher starting in early 2013. Building 1 is getting an assembly line to make the trendy front-loading washers and matching dryers Americans are enamored of; GE has never before made those in the United States. And Appliance Park already has new plastics-manufacturing facilities to make parts for these appliances, including simple items like the plastic-coated wire racks that go in the dishwashers.
In the midst of this revival, Immelt made a startling assertion. Writing in Harvard Business Reviewin March, he declared that outsourcing is “quickly becoming mostly outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.” Just four years after he tried to sell Appliance Park, believing it to be a relic of an era GE had transcended, he’s spending some $800 million to bring the place back to life. “I don’t do that because I run a charity,” he said at a public event in September. “I do that because I think we can do it here and make more money.”
Immelt hasn’t just changed course; he’s pirouetted.
What has happened? Just five years ago, not to mention 10 or 20 years ago, the unchallenged logic of the global economy was that you couldn’t manufacture much besides a fast-food hamburger in the United States. Now the CEO of America’s leading industrial manufacturing company says it’s not Appliance Park that’s obsolete—it’s offshoring that is.
Why does it suddenly make irresistible business sense to build not just dishwashers in Appliance Park, but dishwasher racks as well?
In the 1960s, as the consumer-product world we now live in was booming, the Harvard economist Raymond Vernon laid out his theory of the life cycle of these products, a theory that predicted with remarkable foresight the global production of goods 20 years later. The U.S. would have an advantage making new, high-value products, Vernon wrote, because of its wealth and technological prowess; it made sense, at first, for engineers, assembly workers, and marketers to work in close proximity—to each other and to consumers—the better to get quick feedback, and to tweak product design and manufacture appropriately. As the market grew, and the product became standardized, production would spread to other rich nations, and competitors would arise. And then, eventually, as the product fully matured, its manufacture would shift from rich countries to low-wage countries. Amidst intensifying competition, cost would become the predominant concern, and because the making and marketing of the product were well understood, there would be little reason to produce it in the U.S. anymore.
Vernon’s theory has been borne out again and again over the years. Amana, for instance, introduced the first countertop microwave—the Radarange, made in Amana, Iowa—in 1967, priced at $495. Today you can buy a microwave at Walmart for $49 (the equivalent of a $7 price tag on a 1967 microwave)—and almost all the ones you’ll see there, a variety of brands and models, will have been shipped in from someplace where hourly wages have historically been measured in cents rather than dollars.
ately: globalized production, it appeared, had become “seamless.” There was no reason design and marketing could not take place in one country while production, from the start, happened half a world away.
Until very recently, this trend looked inexorable—and the significance of the much-vaunted increase in manufacturing jobs since the depths of the recession seemed easy to dismiss. Only 500,000 factory jobs were created between their low, in January 2010, and September 2012—a tiny fraction of the almost 6 million that were lost in the aughts. And much of that increase, at first blush, might appear to be nothing more than the natural (but ultimately limited) return of some of the jobs lost in the recession itself.
Yet what’s happening at GE, and elsewhere in American manufacturing, tells a different and more optimistic story—one that suggests the curvature of Vernon’s product cycle may be changing once again, this time in a way that might benefit U.S. industry, and the U.S. economy, quite substantially in the years to come.
The GeoSpring water heater—the one that just came home to Louisville from China—looks a little like R2‑D2, the Star Wars robot, although taller and slimmer. It has a long gray body, and a short top section—the brains—in gray or bright red, with a touch-pad control panel.
The magic is in that head: GE has put a small heat pump up there, and the GeoSpring pulls ambient heat from the air to help heat water. As a result, the GeoSpring uses some 60 percent less electricity than a typical water heater. (You can also control it using your iPhone.)
The GeoSpring is the kind of product we’ve come to expect will arrive on a boat from China—not much more than a curve of rolled steel, some pipes and heating elements, a circuit board, a coat of paint, and a cardboard box. And for the first two and a half years that GE sold the GeoSpring, that’s exactly where it came from.
At Appliance Park, this model of production—designed at home, produced abroad—had been standard for years. For the GeoSpring, it seemed both a victory and a vulnerability. The GeoSpring is an innovative product in a mature category—and offshore production, from the start, appeared to provide substantial cost savings. But making it in China also meant risking that it might be knocked off. And so in 2009, even as they were rolling it out, the folks at Appliance Park were doing the math on bringing it home.
Even then, changes in the global economy were coming into focus that made this more than just an exercise—changes that have continued to this day.
- Oil prices are three times what they were in 2000, making cargo-ship fuel much more expensive now than it was then.
- The natural-gas boom in the U.S. has dramatically lowered the cost for running something as energy-intensive as a factory here at home. (Natural gas now costs four times as much in Asia as it does in the U.S.)
- In dollars, wages in China are some five times what they were in 2000—and they are expected to keep rising 18 percent a year.
- American unions are changing their priorities. Appliance Park’s union was so fractious in the ’70s and ’80s that the place was known as “Strike City.” That same union agreed to a two-tier wage scale in 2005—and today, 70 percent of the jobs there are on the lower tier, which starts at just over $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be.
- U.S. labor productivity has continued its long march upward, meaning that labor costs have become a smaller and smaller proportion of the total cost of finished goods. You simply can’t save much money chasing wages anymore.
But a problem soon became apparent. GE hadn’t made a water heater in the United States in decades. In all the recent years the company had been tucking water heaters into American garages and basements, it had lost track of how to actually make them.
The GeoSpring in particular, Nolan says, has “a lot of copper tubing in the top.” Assembly-line workers “have to route the tubes, and they have to braze them—weld them—to seal the joints. How that tubing is designed really affects how hard or easy it is to solder the joints. And how hard or easy it is to do the soldering affects the quality, of course. And the quality of those welds is literally the quality of the hot-water heater.” Although the GeoSpring had been conceived, designed, marketed, and managed from Louisville, it was made in China, and, Nolan says, “We really had zero communications into the assembly line there.”
To get ready to make the GeoSpring at Appliance Park, in January 2010 GE set up a space on the factory floor of Building 2 to design the new assembly line. No products had been manufactured in Building 2 since 1998. An old GE range assembly line still stood there; after a feud with union workers, that line had been shut down so abruptly that the GeoSpring team found finished oven doors still hanging from conveyors 30 feet overhead. The GeoSpring project had a more collegial tone. The “big room” had design engineers assigned to it, but also manufacturing engineers, line workers, staff from marketing and sales—no management-labor friction, just a group of people with different perspectives, tackling a crucial problem.
“We got the water heater into the room, and the first thing [the group] said to us was ‘This is just a mess,’ ” Nolan recalls. Not the product, but the design. “In terms of manufacturability, it was terrible.”
The GeoSpring suffered from an advanced-technology version of “IKEA Syndrome.” It was so hard to assemble that no one in the big room wanted to make it. Instead they redesigned it. The team eliminated 1 out of every 5 parts. It cut the cost of the materials by 25 percent. It eliminated the tangle of tubing that couldn’t be easily welded. By considering the workers who would have to put the water heater together—in fact, by having those workers right at the table, looking at the design as it was drawn—the team cut the work hours necessary to assemble the water heater from 10 hours in China to two hours in Louisville.
In the end, says Nolan, not one part was the same.
So a funny thing happened to the GeoSpring on the way from the cheap Chinese factory to the expensive Kentucky factory: The material cost went down. The labor required to make it went down. The quality went up. Even the energy efficiency went up.
GE wasn’t just able to hold the retail sticker to the “China price.” It beat that price by nearly 20 percent. The China-made GeoSpring retailed for $1,599. The Louisville-made GeoSpring retails for $1,299.
Time-to-market has also improved, greatly. It used to take five weeks to get the GeoSpring water heaters from the factory to U.S. retailers—four weeks on the boat from China and one week dockside to clear customs. Today, the water heaters—and the dishwashers and refrigerators—move straight from the manufacturing buildings to Appliance Park’s warehouse out back, from which they can be delivered to Lowe’s and Home Depot. Total time from factory to warehouse: 30 minutes.
For years, too many American companies have treated the actual manufacturing of their products as incidental—a generic, interchangeable, relatively low-value part of their business. If you spec’d the item closely enough—if you created a good design, and your drawings had precision; if you hired a cheap factory and inspected for quality—who cared what language the factory workers spoke?
This sounded good in theory. In practice, it was like writing a cookbook without ever cooking.
Lou Lenzi now heads design for all GE appliances, with a team of 25. But for years he worked for Thomson Consumer Electronics, which made small appliances—TVs, DVD players, telephones—with the GE logo on them. Thomson was an outsource shop. It designed stuff, then hired factories to make much of that stuff. Price was what mattered.
“What we had wrong was the idea that anybody can screw together a dishwasher,” says Lenzi. “We thought, ‘We’ll do the engineering, we’ll do the marketing, and the manufacturing becomes a black box.’ But there is an inherent understanding that moves out when you move the manufacturing out. And you never get it back.”
It happens slowly. When you first send the toaster or the water heater to an overseas factory, you know how it’s made. You were just making it—yesterday, last month, last quarter. But as products change, as technologies evolve, as years pass, as you change factories to chase lower labor costs, the gap between the people imagining the products and the people making them becomes as wide as the Pacific.
What is only now dawning on the smart American companies, says Lenzi, is that when you outsource the making of the products, “your whole business goes with the outsourcing.” Which raises a troubling but also thrilling prospect: the offshoring rush of the past decade or more—one of the signature economic events of our times—may have been a mistake.
Business practices are prone to fads, and in hindsight, the rush to offshore production 10 or 15 years ago looks a little extreme. The distance across the Pacific Ocean was as wide then as it is now, and the speed of cargo ships was just as slow. A lot of the very good reasons for bringing factories back to the U.S. today were potent arguments against offshoring in the first place.
It was important to innovate, and to protect innovations, 10 or 15 years ago. It was important to have designers, engineers, and assembly-line workers talk to each other then, too. That companies spent the past two decades ignoring those things just shows the power of price, even for people who should be able to take a broader view.
Harry Moser, an MIT-trained engineer, spent decades running a business that made machine tools. After retiring, he started an organization called the Reshoring Initiative in 2010, to help companies assess where to make their products. “The way we see it,” says Moser, “about 60 percent of the companies that offshored manufacturing didn’t really do the math. They looked only at the labor rate—they didn’t look at the hidden costs.” Moser believes that about a quarter of what’s made outside the U.S. could be more profitably made at home.
But many of those hidden costs come later. In the first blush of cheap manufacturing, it’s easy to overlook the slow loss of your own skills, the gradual homogenization of your products, the corrosion of quality and decline of innovation. And it’s easy to assume that globally distributed production will hum along more smoothly than it often does in practice: however strong the planning, some of those shipping containers will be opened to reveal damaged or substandard goods, and some of them won’t have the number or variety of goods a company needs at that very moment. “All you need is to have to hire one or two 747s a couple times to get product here in a hurry,” says Shook, “and you lose those savings.”
Thomas Mayor, a senior adviser with Booz & Company who specializes in manufacturing strategy, says that in industry after industry, he is seeing the same kind of reassessment GE has made. When asked about the value of the original rush offshore, Mayor laughs.
“Twelve years ago, I saw a lot of boards of directors and senior executives saying, ‘Three years from now, I’m going to be sourcing $4 billion in product from China. Go figure out how to make it happen.’ ” Part of the rationale, from the start, was merely to gain a foothold in the Chinese market. And for many companies, that made sense, at least to some extent. “But if you press them on theirsavings by sourcing from China for North America, I get stories like ‘Oh, I asked about that six months ago. I had five finance guys working on it, and they couldn’t come up with any savings.’ At the end of the day, they say, ‘If we were doing this for the U.S. market, we should never have gone to China in the first place.’ ”
GE is not alone in moving the manufacture of many of its products back to the U.S. The transformation under way at Appliance Park is mirrored in dozens of other places, with Whirlpool bringing mixer-making back from China to Ohio, Otis bringing elevator production back from Mexico to South Carolina, even Wham-O bringing Frisbee-molding back from China to California. The Boston Company published a paper in May on ways for investors to capitalize on the U.S. factory revival. ISI Group, an investment-research company, put out a 98‑page report in August, piling up reasons for the return of a strong U.S. industrial sector. Nancy Lazar, who co-authored the ISI Group report, says, “This is the beginning of a manufacturing renaissance. I’ve been saying this since 2009. Even the industrial companies told me I was crazy. Why are they telling me I’m crazy? Because they’ve spent the last 15 or 20 years putting the plants outside the U.S. That’s over.”
The recalibration of costs in recent years is one reason, and the competitive benefit of keeping production stateside is another. But the logic of onshoring today goes even further—and is driven, in part, by the newfound impatience of the product cycle itself.
Just a few years ago, the design of a new range or refrigerator was assumed to last seven years. Now, says Lou Lenzi, GE’s managers figure no model will be good for more than two or three years. This phenomenon is not limited to GE. The feverish cycle of innovation and new products beloved in the electronics world has infected all kinds of consumer categories. Products that once seemed mature—from stoves to greeting cards—are being reinvigorated with cheap computing technology. And the product life cycle is speeding up—many goods get outflanked by “smarter” versions every couple of years, or faster.
Factories take a while to settle into a new product, a new design. They face a learning curve. But models that have a run of only a couple years become outdated just as the assembly line starts to hum. That, too, makes using faraway factories challenging, even if they are cheap.
It is not, in fact, your mother’s refrigerator anymore. The highest-end French-door fridge being made at Appliance Park retails for $3,099. Its auto-fill water spigot is unique, and it is lit inside by 10 recessed LED bulbs that use almost no energy, create almost no heat, and never burn out.
The addition of high-tech components to everyday items makes production more complicated, and that means U.S. production is more attractive, not just because manufacturers now have more proprietary technology to protect, but because American workers are more skilled, on average, than their Chinese counterparts. And the short leap from one product generation to the next makes the alchemy among engineers, marketers, and factory workers all the more important.
One key difference between the U.S. economy today and that of 15 or 20 years ago is the labor environment—not just wages in factories, but the degree of flexibility displayed by unions and workers. Many observers would say these changes reflect a loss of power and leverage by workers, and they would be right. But management, more keenly aware of offshoring’s perils, is also trying to create a different (and better) factory environment. Hourly employees increasingly participate in workplace decision making in ways that are more like what you find in white-collar technology companies.
In late 2008, Dirk Bowman and Rich Calvaruso, both manufacturing managers at Appliance Park, were looking to shake up the place, desperate to keep it relevant. Bowman oversees all manufacturing at Appliance Park. He started there 29 years ago, fresh out of college, as the second-shift foreman on the dishwasher line. Calvaruso has worked for years in manufacturing at GE, and now helps other people at Appliance Park invent and then reinvent their work on the assembly lines.
“The dishwasher line was extremely long,” Bowman says. “It went from the back of the factory to the front, and back again. It was very loud. It was very expensive—each operator was surrounded by parts, a lot of inventory. It was a command-and-control operation.” It was the kind of operation Chinese companies could readily out-compete, and the kind U.S. factory managers were happy to outsource.
Both Bowman and Calvaruso knew something about “lean” manufacturing techniques—the style of factory management invented by Toyota whereby everyone has a say in critiquing and improving the way work gets done, with a focus on eliminating waste. Lean management is not a new concept, but outside of car making, it hasn’t caught on widely in the United States. It requires an open, collegial, and relentlessly self-critical mind-set among workers and bosses alike—a mind-set that is hard to create and sustain.
In the simplest terms, an assembly line is a way of putting parts together to make a product; lean production is a way of putting the assembly line itself together so the work is as easy and efficient as possible.
“We thought, ‘We gotta try something new,’ ” says Bowman. “ ‘We have to be competitive.’ ” Calvaruso put together a group that included hourly employees and told it to completely reimagine dishwasher assembly. The group was given this crucial guarantee: regardless of the efficiencies it created, “no one will lose their job because of lean.”
So the dishwasher team remade its own assembly line. It eliminated 35 percent of the labor.
What happened to the workers who were no longer needed for dishwasher assembly? Bowman and Calvaruso created another team and asked them to pick a dishwasher part they thought Appliance Park should, once again, be making itself. The team picked the top panel of the door—appliance people call it the “dishwasher escutcheon.” It’s the part you grab to open and close the dishwasher, where all the controls and buttons are. If you use a dishwasher, you touch the escutcheon.
“The escutcheon is a high-interface part with the consumer,” says Bowman. “We wanted to control the quality. We can deliver it more easily right here. And we actually thought we could do it cheaper.” And now they do.
That’s how the outsourcing cycle starts to turn. Once you begin making the product itself, you get the itch to make the parts, too.
The dishwasher’s initial assembly-line redesign was a primitive version of lean. The full-blown, sophisticated version has spread across Appliance Park, into the work of the engineers, the designers, the salespeople, the bosses. Another team took a design for a new dishwasher into a room and pulled it apart. As originally designed, the door had four visible screws. The marketing people on the team wanted the door to have no visible screws—they wanted it iPhone-sleek. The operators loved that idea—four screws is a lot of assembly-line work. The engineers and designers came up with a design that holds the door together with one hidden screw and a rod.
“It’s easier to assemble,” says Calvaruso. “It’s cheaper. And the fit, feel, and finish are better.”
If the people who design dishwashers sit at their desks in one building, and the people who sell them to retailers and consumers sit at their desks in another building, and the people who make the dishwashers are in a different country and speak a different language—you never realize that the four screws should disappear, let alone come up with a way they can. The story of the four disappearing screws on that dishwasher door is why Jeffrey Immelt has the confidence to spend $800 million to bring Appliance Park back to life.
At the public event in September, Immelt captured the lessons of the new Appliance Park. “I think the era of inexpensive labor is basically over,” he said. “People that are out there just chasing what they view as today’s low-cost labor—that’s yesterday’s playbook.”
GE is rediscovering that how you run the factory is a technology in and of itself. Your factory is really a laboratory—and the R&D that can happen there, if you pay attention, is worth a lot more to the bottom line than the cost savings of cheap labor in someone else’s factory.
Outsourcing and the disappearance of U.S. factory jobs were the result of what often seemed like irresistible market forces—but they were also the result of individual decisions, factory by factory, spreadsheet by spreadsheet, company by company.
Appliance Park will end this year with 3,600 hourly employees—1,700 more than last year, an increase of more than 90 percent. The facility hasn’t had this many assembly-line workers in a decade. GE has also hired 500 new designers and engineers since 2009, to support the new manufacturing.
GE’s appliance unit does $5 billion in business—and today, 55 percent of that revenue comes from products made in the United States. By the end of 2014, GE expects 75 percent of the appliance business’s revenue to come from American-made products like dishwashers, water heaters, and refrigerators, and the company expects that its sales numbers will be larger, as the housing market revives.
What’s happening in factories across the U.S. is not simply a reversal of decades of outsourcing. If there was once a rush to push factories of nearly every kind offshore, their return is more careful; many things are never coming
back. Levi Strauss used to have more than 60 domestic blue-jeans plants; today it contracts out work to 16 and owns none, and it’s hard to imagine mass-market clothing factories ever coming back in significant numbers—the work is too basic.
Appliance Park once used its thousands of workers to make almost every part of every appliance; today, every component GE decides to make in Louisville returns home only after a careful calculation that balances quality, cost, skills, and speed. Appliance Park wants to make its own dishwasher racks, because it can, and because the rack is an important part of the dishwasher experience for customers. But Appliance Park will likely never again make its own compressors or motors, nor is it going to build a microchip-etching facility.
And of course, manufacturing employment will never again be as central to the U.S. economy as it was in the 1960s and ’70s—improvements in worker productivity alone ensure that. Back in the ’60s, Appliance Park was turning out 250,000 appliances a month. The assembly lines there today are turning out almost as many—with at most one-third of the workers.
All that said, big factories have a way of creating larger economies around them—they have a “multiplier effect,” in economic parlance. Revere Plastics Systems, one of GE’s suppliers, has opened a new factory just 20 minutes north of Appliance Park, across the Ohio River in Indiana, and has 195 people there working in three shifts around the clock. The manufacturing renaissance now under way won’t solve the jobs crisis by itself, but it could broaden the economy, and help reclaim opportunities—and skills—that have been lost across the past decade or more.
It’s possible that five years from now, everything will have unraveled—that the return of factory jobs will have been a temporary blip, that Appliance Park will be closed. (Business practices, after all, are prone to fads.)
But that doesn’t seem likely. Bringing jobs back to Appliance Park solves a problem. It is sparking a wave of fresh innovation in GE’s appliances—every major appliance line has been redesigned or will be in the next two years—and the experience of “big room” redesign, involving a whole team, is itself inspiring further, faster advances.
In fact, insourcing solves a whole bundle of problems—it simplifies transportation; it gives people confidence in the competitive security of their ideas; it lets companies manage costs with real transparency and close to home; it means a company can be as nimble as it wants to be, because the Pacific Ocean isn’t standing in the way of getting the right product to the right customer.
Many offshoring decisions were based on a single preoccupation—cheap labor. The labor was so cheap, in fact, that it covered a multitude of sins in other areas. The approach to bringing jobs back has been much more thoughtful. Jobs are coming back not for a single, simple reason, but for many intertwined reasons—which means they won’t slip away again when one element of the business, or the economy, changes.
For more than a decade, deciding where to build a manufacturing plant to supply the world was simple for many companies. With its seemingly limitless supply of low-cost labor and an enormous, rapidly developing domestic market, an artificially low currency, and significant government incentives to attract foreign investment, China was the clear choice. Read more
Maybe the once-ubiquitous label, Made in USA should be updated to: Made in USA — Again. Read more
By CHARLES MURRAYAmerica is coming apart. For most of our nation’s history, whatever the inequality in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world—for whites, anyway. “The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of American democracy, in the 1830s. “On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to them, they speak to them every day.”Americans love to see themselves this way. But there’s a problem: It’s not true anymore, and it has been progressively less true since the 1960s.
To be assigned to Belmont, the people in the statistical nationwide databases on which I am drawing must have at least a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media. To be assigned to Fishtown, they must have no academic degree higher than a high-school diploma. If they work, it must be in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job such as cashier, or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist.
People who qualify for my Belmont constitute about 20% of the white population of the U.S., ages 30 to 49. People who qualify for my Fishtown constitute about 30% of the white population of the U.S., ages 30 to 49.
I specify white, meaning non-Latino white, as a way of clarifying how broad and deep the cultural divisions in the U.S. have become. Cultural inequality is not grounded in race or ethnicity. I specify ages 30 to 49—what I call prime-age adults—to make it clear that these trends are not explained by changes in the ages of marriage or retirement.
In Belmont and Fishtown, here’s what happened to America’s common culture between 1960 and 2010.
Marriage: In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites in both Belmont and Fishtown were married—94% in Belmont and 84% in Fishtown. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in both places. Then came the great divergence. In Belmont, marriage stabilized during the mid-1980s, standing at 83% in 2010. In Fishtown, however, marriage continued to slide; as of 2010, a minority (just 48%) were married. The gap in marriage between Belmont and Fishtown grew to 35 percentage points, from just 10.
Single parenthood: Another aspect of marriage—the percentage of children born to unmarried women—showed just as great a divergence. Though politicians and media eminences are too frightened to say so, nonmarital births are problematic. On just about any measure of development you can think of, children who are born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than children raised in intact families. This unwelcome reality persists even after controlling for the income and education of the parents.
In 1960, just 2% of all white births were nonmarital. When we first started recording the education level of mothers in 1970, 6% of births to white women with no more than a high-school education—women, that is, with a Fishtown education—were out of wedlock. By 2008, 44% were nonmarital. Among the college-educated women of Belmont, less than 6% of all births were out of wedlock as of 2008, up from 1% in 1970.
Industriousness: The norms for work and women were revolutionized after 1960, but the norm for men putatively has remained the same: Healthy men are supposed to work. In practice, though, that norm has eroded everywhere. In Fishtown, the change has been drastic. (To avoid conflating this phenomenon with the latest recession, I use data collected in March 2008 as the end point for the trends.)
The primary indicator of the erosion of industriousness in the working class is the increase of prime-age males with no more than a high school education who say they are not available for work—they are “out of the labor force.” That percentage went from a low of 3% in 1968 to 12% in 2008. Twelve percent may not sound like much until you think about the men we’re talking about: in the prime of their working lives, their 30s and 40s, when, according to hallowed American tradition, every American man is working or looking for work. Almost one out of eight now aren’t. Meanwhile, not much has changed among males with college educations. Only 3% were out of the labor force in 2008.
There’s also been a notable change in the rates of less-than-full-time work. Of the men in Fishtown who had jobs, 10% worked fewer than 40 hours a week in 1960, a figure that grew to 20% by 2008. In Belmont, the number rose from 9% in 1960 to 12% in 2008.
Crime: The surge in crime that began in the mid-1960s and continued through the 1980s left Belmont almost untouched and ravaged Fishtown. From 1960 to 1995, the violent crime rate in Fishtown more than sextupled while remaining nearly flat in Belmont. The reductions in crime since the mid-1990s that have benefited the nation as a whole have been smaller in Fishtown, leaving it today with a violent crime rate that is still 4.7 times the 1960 rate.
Religiosity: Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that Fish
town has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.
For example, suppose we define “de facto secular” as someone who either professes no religion at all or who attends a worship service no more than once a year. For the early GSS surveys conducted from 1972 to 1976, 29% of Belmont and 38% of Fishtown fell into that category. Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow in Belmont, from 29% in the 1970s to 40% in the GSS surveys taken from 2006 to 2010. But it grew even more in Fishtown, from 38% to 59%.
***It can be said without hyperbole that these divergences put Belmont and Fishtown into different cultures. But it’s not just the working class that’s moved; the upper middle class has pulled away in its own fashion, too.
If you were an executive living in Belmont in 1960, income inequality would have separated you from the construction worker in Fishtown, but remarkably little cultural inequality. You lived a more expensive life, but not a much different life. Your kitchen was bigger, but you didn’t use it to prepare yogurt and muesli for breakfast. Your television screen was bigger, but you and the construction worker watched a lot of the same shows (you didn’t have much choice). Your house might have had a den that the construction worker’s lacked, but it had no StairMaster or lap pool, nor any gadget to monitor your percentage of body fat. You both drank Bud, Miller, Schlitz or Pabst, and the phrase “boutique beer” never crossed your lips. You probably both smoked. If you didn’t, you did not glare contemptuously at people who did.
When you went on vacation, you both probably took the family to the seashore or on a fishing trip, and neither involved hotels with five stars. If you had ever vacationed outside the U.S. (and you probably hadn’t), it was a one-time trip to Europe, where you saw eight cities in 14 days—not one of the two or three trips abroad you now take every year for business, conferences or eco-vacations in the cloud forests of Costa Rica.
You both lived in neighborhoods where the majority of people had only high-school diplomas—and that might well have included you. The people around you who did have college degrees had almost invariably gotten them at state universities or small religious colleges mostly peopled by students who were the first generation of their families to attend college. Except in academia, investment banking, a few foundations, the CIA and the State Department, you were unlikely to run into a graduate of Harvard, Princeton or Yale.
Even the income inequality that separated you from the construction worker was likely to be new to your adulthood. The odds are good that your parents had been in the working class or middle class, that their income had not been much different from the construction worker’s, that they had lived in communities much like his, and that the texture of the construction worker’s life was recognizable to you from your own childhood.
Taken separately, the differences in lifestyle that now separate Belmont from Fishtown are not sinister, but those quirks of the upper-middle class that I mentioned—the yogurt and muesli and the rest—are part of a mosaic of distinctive practices that have developed in Belmont. These have to do with the food Belmonters eat, their drinking habits, the ages at which they marry and have children, the books they read (and their number), the television shows and movies they watch (and the hours spent on them), the humor they enjoy, the way they take care of their bodies, the way they decorate their homes, their leisure activities, their work environments and their child-raising practices. Together, they have engendered cultural separation.
It gets worse. A subset of Belmont consists of those who have risen to the top of American society. They run the country, meaning that they are responsible for the films and television shows you watch, the news you see and read, the fortunes of the nation’s corporations and financial institutions, and the jurisprudence, legislation and regulations produced by government. They are the new upper class, even more detached from the lives of the great majority of Americans than the people of Belmont—not just socially but spatially as well. The members of this elite have increasingly sorted themselves into hyper-wealthy and hyper-elite ZIP Codes that I call the SuperZIPs.
In 1960, America already had the equivalent of SuperZIPs in the form of famously elite neighborhoods—places like the Upper East Side of New York, Philadelphia’s Main Line, the North Shore of Chicago and Beverly Hills. But despite their prestige, the people in them weren’t uniformly wealthy or even affluent. Across 14 of the most elite places to live in 1960, the median family income wasn’t close to affluence. It was just $84,000 (in today’s purchasing power). Only one in four adults in those elite communities had a college degree.
By 2000, that diversity had dwindled. Median family income had doubled, to $163,000 in the same elite ZIP Codes. The percentage of adults with B.A.s rose to 67% from 26%. And it’s not just that elite neighborhoods became more homogeneously affluent and highly educated—they also formed larger and larger clusters.
If you are invited to a dinner party by one of Washington’s power elite, the odds are high that you will be going to a home in Georgetown, the rest of Northwest D.C., Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Potomac or McLean, comprising 13 adjacent ZIP Codes in all. If you rank all the ZIP Codes in the country on an index of education and income and group them by percentiles, you will find that 11 of these 13 D.C.-area ZIP Codes are in the 99th percentile and the other two in the 98th. Ten of them are in the top half of the 99th percentile.
Similarly large clusters of SuperZIPs can be found around New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco-San Jose corridor, Boston and a few of the nation’s other largest cities. Because running major institutions in this country usually means living near one of these cities, it works out that the nation’s power elite does in fact live in a world that is far more culturally rarefied and isolated than the world of the power elite in 1960.
And the isolation is only going to get worse. Increasingly, the people who run the country were born into that world. Unlike the typical member of the elite in 1960, they have never known anything but the new upper-class culture. We are now seeing more and more third-generation members of the elite. Not even their grandparents have been able to give them a window into life in the rest of America.
***Why have these new lower and upper classes emerged? For explaining the formation of the new lower class, the easy explanations from the left don’t withstand scrutiny. It’s not that white working class males can no longer make a “family wage” that enables them to marry. The average male employed in a working-class occupation earned as much in 2010 as he did in 1960. It’s not that a bad job market led discouraged men to drop out of the labor force. Labor-force dropout increased just as fast during the boom years of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s as it did during bad years.
As I’ve argued in much of my previous work, I think that the reforms of the 1960s jump-started the deterioration. Changes in social policy during the 1960s made it economically more feasible to have a child without having a husband if you were a woman or to get along without a job if you were a man; safer to commit crimes without suffering consequences; and easier to let the government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of.
But, for practical purposes, understanding why the new lower class got started isn’t especially important. Once
the deterioration was under way, a self-reinforcing loop took hold as traditionally powerful social norms broke down. Because the process has become self-reinforcing, repealing the reforms of the 1960s (something that’s not going to happen) would change the trends slowly at best.
Meanwhile, the formation of the new upper class has been driven by forces that are nobody’s fault and resist manipulation. The economic value of brains in the marketplace will continue to increase no matter what, and the most successful of each generation will tend to marry each other no matter what. As a result, the most successful Americans will continue to trend toward consolidation and isolation as a class. Changes in marginal tax rates on the wealthy won’t make a difference. Increasing scholarships for working-class children won’t make a difference.
The only thing that can make a difference is the recognition among Americans of all classes that a problem of cultural inequality exists and that something has to be done about it. That “something” has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.
The “something” that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.
Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.
Such priorities can be expressed in any number of familiar decisions: the neighborhood where you buy your next home, the next school that you choose for your children, what you tell them about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service, whether you become an active member of a religious congregation (and what kind you choose) and whether you become involved in the life of your community at a more meaningful level than charity events.
Everyone in the new upper class has the monetary resources to make a wide variety of decisions that determine whether they engage themselves and their children in the rest of America or whether they isolate themselves from it. The only question is which they prefer to do.
That’s it? But where’s my five-point plan? We’re supposed to trust that large numbers of parents will spontaneously, voluntarily make the right choice for the country by making the right choice for themselves and their children?
Yes, we are, but I don’t think that’s naive. I see too many signs that the trends I’ve described are already worrying a lot of people. If enough Americans look unblinkingly at the nature of the problem, they’ll fix it. One family at a time. For their own sakes. That’s the American way.
—Mr. Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
His new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010” (Crown Forum) will be published on Jan. 31.
Repost from Wall Street Journal on January 22, 2012
“To do something like this HAS to be a business decision,” he says, “but it is emotional and it is sentimental to be able to come back and make something again and to impact people in such a positive way.”
What happens in the cavernous factory on Cochrane Road could bring economic security to workers in a state that, by one estimate, has hemorrhaged tens of thousands of jobs to China in the last decade.
But what happens here could also offer larger lessons about U.S. workers in a global market, the appetite for American-made goods and the future of an industry decimated by foreign competition.
Bruce Cochrane was in China, 8,000 miles away, when he first began thinking about reviving the family’s business three years ago.
Over a decade of consulting, he’d witnessed dramatic changes in China’s economy. Manufacturing workers’ wages — 58 cents an hour, on average, in 2001 — were approaching $3. The once abundant labor supply was drying up. Shipping costs were higher because of rising fuel costs. Quality was suffering because of high turnover. It could take three or more months to get a piece of furniture after it was ordered — compared with 30 days or less in the U.S. The clear-cut advantages of manufacturing in China were disappearing.
That same point was made in a 2011 report by The Boston Consulting Group that estimated that “reshoring” by companies could result in 2 to 3 million new jobs. About a quarter would be directly in manufacturing, and the rest would work for suppliers or service industries.
Furniture, the report said, is among the seven areas where this is most likely to occur. The costs of shipping bulky products and the ample supply of wood in the U.S. make it a prime candidate for domestic manufacturing; China has to import wood.
“The pendulum is swinging,” says Hal Sirkin, the report’s lead author. He says wages are rising 15-to-20 percent a year in China and U.S. workers are, on average, more than three times as productive
The report predicts that by 2015, these industries will likely reach a “tipping point” where the cost advantages of China will have shrunk to a point where U.S. companies may see it’s to their benefit to return production or set up a new base here.
“It’s still early,” Sirkin says. “We don’t know all this is going to happen, but companies are starting because the economics are starting to look favorable. I was surprised to see it happening as quickly as it is.”
It is happening at a time when Americans — historically proud of the nation’s manufacturing might — are showing frustration with the migration of those jobs to China and elsewhere. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in February found that nearly 75 percent of those surveyed favor raising taxes on businesses that move manufacturing jobs overseas.
In January, President Barack Obama hosted a White House forum on in-sourcing, featuring small and large companies that have invested in the U.S. And in his State of the Union speech, Obama called for an economy “built on American manufacturing.” He said the resurgence of the U.S. auto industry “should give us confidence.”
A March trade group survey found expansion in 15 of 18 manufacturing industries, including autos, steel and furniture.
The president’s Republican rivals, meanwhile, also have touted the value of manufacturing and talked tough about China. Mitt Romney has vowed to declare China a “currency manipulator” and impose tariff penalties. Rick Santorum, who has emphasized his blue-collar roots, proclaimed he wants to “got to war with China” to create the best business climate for America.
But predictions about a rebirth of manufacturing and muscular rhetoric about resolving trade imbalances are met with understandable skepticism.
Consider the numbers: More than 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost from 2000 to 2011, though there has been a modest recovery in recent years, There are economists who say some jobs are gone forever because of productivity and robotic gains. And U.S. multinationals eliminated more than 800,000 jobs in the U.S. while adding 2.9 million overseas from 2000 to 2009, according to federal figures.
The trade deficit with China — $295 billion last year — has cost nearly 2.8 million U.S. jobs from 2001 to 2010 and almost 70 percent have been in manufacturing, according to a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute.
The report’s author, Robert Scott, found that about a third of all displaced jobs were in the computer and electronic parts industry; other areas include textiles, apparel and furniture. North Carolina’s loss of nearly 108,000 jobs ranked it among the top 10 hardest-hit states.
Reshoring “is not only a drop in the bucket … it’s not making a dent in the growth of the trade deficit,” says Scott. “It’s a classic example of counting trees instead of focusing on the forest. You may see a few trees popping up but the forest is still falling down.”
Bruce Cochrane started learning the furniture trade as a teen. He worked with his father, Theo — also known as Sonny — who ran the company with his brother, Jerry
“He always instilled in me that it was OK to take chances,” Cochrane says. “He’d always say, ‘If you aren’t fishing, you aren’t catching anything.'”
Cochrane remembered those words when trying to decide whether to take the plunge. “I actually had a dream of him telling me that and he was in his fishing gear. At that point, I said, ‘Yep, I’m going to do it.'”
That decision came more than a decade after the Cochranes got out of the business. In 1997, the family sold the company to another U.S. manufacturer; the factory remained open and the workers continued to make furniture with the Cochrane name. Over the years, though, more and more work was done in China. The plant finally closed in late 2008, the building was sold and the equipment auctioned off.
Cochrane carefully developed a business plan, and by 2011, he was ready — thanks, in part, to financing from a local bank. The president turned out to be a former company worker.
Last spring, Cochrane — who has two partners — walked into the empty 300,000 square-foot factory.
He soon added family touches, among them an oil painting of his father, hung on the lobby wall. With their silver hair and Clark Kent glasses, father and son share an uncanny resemblance. His eyes mist when he mentions him. “I think about how much he would love this,” he says.
Starting over, Cochrane also looked to the past, recruiting former company workers.
When he phoned the first two — both weren’t working — he heard doubt in their voices.
“Both of them said, ‘I don’t think I can do that anymore,'” he recalls. “They had lost their confidence. It (joblessness) puts people in such despair. They think there’s something wrong with them rather than the circumstances.”
Karen Padgett was one of those first calls. She’d worked her way up from the shipping department to human resources manager, spending 35 years with Cochrane and its successor. When the factory closed, Padgett was adrift.
She was in her 50s, jobs were scarce and a lifetime of working with folks who’d become good friends was suddenly gone.
“It was such a loss,” she says. “If you have a death in the family, you feel like you just can’t pick up and go forward. That’s how I felt. … I knew I needed to work. I knew I was still vital enough to do something, but I didn’t know what I would do.”
Jerry Cochrane had urged her to return to school, so she enrolled in a nearby college to polish her skills.
She was just starting to scope out job prospects when Cochrane called. She knew immediately she wanted the job, but had a moment of hesitation. “Being out of work strips you of your confidence,” she says. “I felt, ‘Oh, gosh can I do this?’ I just needed somebody to reassure me.”
Cochrane described his plans to build American-made furniture. “He said, ‘I really believe it’s coming back and we can make some money doing this and we’ll have a good time, I promise.'”
Padgett is now on the other end of the job search, fielding calls and conducting interviews. She’s received about 1,400 applications for what eventually will be about 130 jobs. (Starting salaries range from $9 to $16 an hour.)
One caller had a particularly poignant story: He said he wanted to work for the company because as a boy, he’d lived down the road from the old Cochrane factory. His single mother had struggled to provide for her six kids, he said, and when times got tough, Sonny Cochrane made sure their utility bills were paid.
The man was eventually hired.
About two-thirds of Lincolnton workers have experience in the furniture industry. North Carolina lost nearly 60 percent of its furniture jobs from 1999 to 2010, as the percentage of imported furniture sold in the U.S. doubled.
It has been a slow-motion economic disaster. Padgett says everyone noticed how one factory, then another closed, and yet “it was like we just woke up and it was swept out from under us. It kind of slapped us in the face when it was all gone.”
It was so traumatic that when Cochrane asked Pat Hendrick to return as purchasing manager, she was thrilled but had one question: “‘Will you be importing anything?’ I didn’t want to be involved with anything like that,” she says, “because that’s how I lost my job.”
To Hendrick, her job offer was an answered prayer. Literally. Every day while she was unemployed, she says, she’d pray she’d find work. One day, she tried something a little different:
“I said, ‘God, I’m tired. You’re going to have to drop a job in my lap that you know I can do and have people there that I can get along with and work with. I’m just leaving it in your hands.'”
Cochrane called at 8:59 a.m. the next day.
Driving back into the parking lot for the first time, Hendrick says she felt as if she’d never left. But two years of unemployment aren’t easily forgotten.
“After losing your job of 32 years,” she says, “you do have reservations. I’m comfortable here, but I don’t think I’ll ever have that same sense of security that I thought I had.”
Dean Hoyle understands uncertainty. After nearly 30 years at the factory, he found himself out of work, too, scraping by doing yard work and mowing lawns.
His situation, he says, was even more agonizing because he was still recovering from the death of his wife from breast cancer, and work, he says, “had been a rock to me.” After 14 months, Hoyle was hired at another furniture company, only to be laid off last year.
Hoyle, who works in the packing department, is struck by how much has changed since he first walked into the factory as a fresh-faced Army veteran. “These places were all up and running when I got out of school,” he says. “Where are all the people going to go now and what are they going to do? Not everybody can be a computer programmer.”
Hoyle’s ruddy, mustachioed face breaks into a wide smile as he recalls going to the bank to deposit his first paycheck from the new job.
“I’m 57 years old and soon to be 58, and I’ve got enough sense to know this area is not full of opportunities for someone like me,” he says. “If I could sum it up in one word, it would be grateful.”
In January, Lincolnton’s first piece of furniture — a cherry-wood nightstand — came off the line. All the workers signed it.
That same month, Bruce Cochrane had two dates in Washington, D.C. The first was the White House conference on insourcing, where he met Obama. The other was an invitation to sit in the first lady’s box at the State of the Union speech, where the president spoke of a manufacturing renaissance. (For the record, Cochrane says he’s never voted for a Democratic president.)
Cochrane thinks there’s an appetite for U.S.-produced goods. He attaches a “Made in America” tag to each piece of his company’s furniture, with a message: “We take immeasurable pride in the fact that our furnishings are made of select solid American hardwoods,” he wrote, appending his name.
“I think people realize that made in America means jobs in America,” Cochrane says. “And they have experience with a loved one or a family member or a friend who lost a job so it becomes more and more personal to them.”
Bud Boyles, owner of the Carolina Furniture Mart in Lincolnton (where the nightstand is displayed), senses a similar mood.
“Timing is everything and he’s definitely got the timing right now,” Boyles says. “It might be a hard first year for him but people are saying, ‘We’re going to have to take a look at what we’re doing. We have to go back to our roots and help our neighbors.””
There have been small moments of satisfaction these first months, such as touring the factory with a friend, who said he thought he’d never again smell that earthy scent of fresh-cut wood. “It’s nostalgic,” Cochrane says.
But there have been problems, too. A malfunctioning machine needed fixing and the plant had to be rewired, a costly project. The technology has become so efficient that Cochrane says he’ll need half the workers he first expected — though of course that’s a mixed blessing, given the area’s struggle with unemployment.
e years, Cochrane hopes to do $25 million in business a year. For now, he’s determined to prove the naysayers wrong.
“People in this industry still don’t believe this can be done,” he says. “I don’t have any doubt at all.”
by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sharon Cohen is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Chicago. She can be reached at [email protected]