Making it in America
Still, it’s a stretch to say, as is commonly heard, that the U.S. doesn’t make anything anymore. In fact, Sirkin says, the U.S. makes about three-quarters of all the manufactured goods (including components) it consumes. The chemical and plastics industries are thriving, thanks to declining natural gas prices, and foreign automakers including BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, and Volkswagen have opened plants in the U.S. Master Lock returned (“onshored” or “insourced” in labor-speak) 100 union jobs to its Milwaukee lock factory. Among the companies that have dug in their heels and continued to manufacture domestically is Lenox, which says it’s the only maker of fine bone china in the U.S.
Some companies are bucking the outsourcing trend even in industries that have largely fled the U.S.: large appliances, electronics, and apparel.
Appliances. In 2000, Michigan-based Whirlpool manufactured most of its front-loading washers in Germany. Now the company is in the midst of making a five-year, $1 billion investment in U.S.-based plants, facilities, and equipment. Of the products Whirlpool sells in the U.S., it makes 80 percent in U.S. plants. And it continues to ramp up production of front-loaders in Ohio, where it already makes dryers, dishwashers, freezers, and top-loaders.
“On the one hand, U.S. labor costs are often higher than in other countries,” says Casey Tubman, Whirlpool’s general manager of cleaning. “But when you look at the higher productivity for American workers and consider the fact that it’s very expensive to ship something as big as a refrigerator or washer, we can quickly make up those costs.”
Last year, KitchenAid returned the manufacture of hand mixers from China to the U.S., and GE opened two factories in Kentucky to make hot-water heaters and refrigerators. A spokesman for Sears told us that “through our manufacturing partner, Electrolux, more than 1,200 new American jobs will be created at a plant being built in Memphis.”
There should be plenty of demand if the industry does come back. About a third of respondents to our survey said they’d tried to buy U.S.-made appliances during the past year. And more than half of respondents perceived such appliances as having much or somewhat better quality than those made abroad.