Manufacturing is Back! A Good Storyline, But Let’s Not Oversell It

There sure have been a lot of stories lately about the revival of manufacturing in the United States, examining the rise of productivity, investment and employment. Indeed, since the dark days of 2008, manufacturing has led the economic recovery and company leaders are generally optimistic.

Today’s front page of The Washington Post provides an example. The story is “The Rust Belt Shows Some Luster“:

NORTH CANTON, OHIO — More than 1,000 applicants began lining up this week outside a former Hoover vacuum plant here in the hopes of joining a surprising trend in this part of the nation’s manufacturing heartland: new jobs.

Come June, the plant will be churning out EdenPure space heaters, vacuums, air purifiers and other small appliances once made in China. The turnabout for this factory and scores of others across the long-suffering Rust Belt offers vivid evidence of a budding revival in American manufacturing that has been a key driver of the economic recovery.

The nation’s factories have added 250,000 jobs since the beginning of last year — about 13 percent of what was lost during the recent recession — marking the first sustained increase in manufacturing employment since 1997.

The Post provides a counterpoint: The jobs don’t pay as much as they used to, back in the halcyon days of American manufacturing. The photo gallery included with the online package tells the story: “There’s a surprising trend in the long-suffering manufacturing heartland: new jobs. But even so, the hiring reflects another emerging reality of U.S. manufacturing: Jobs don’t pay what they used to.”

Other recent examples of this trend story:

Yes,  FT had the same story the Post did today more than two weeks ago, with both papers citing the same economist, Mark Perry of the University of Michigan in Flint (currently a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute). The Post’s story has more detail and local color, though. Nothing wrong with covering the same news.

Still, it makes us nervous to see so many articles pile up about manufacturing’s growing might.  It’s a trend story, the conventional wisdom, and it’s journalistic practice to follow up with rebuttals and popping of balloons. In political journalism, you build up a candidate’s reputation and prospects only to tear him down later. When do the backlash stories about manufacturing begin?

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