Economic policy is being driven by the belief that good paying manufacturing jobs are being lost and replaced by lower paying service sector jobs, and that the manufacturing jobs can be recovered by protectionist trade policies and subsidies.
It is the case that the share of employment classified as manufacturing is declining and that of services increasing, but the reasons and implications need to be understood. This phenomenon is occurring in all developed countries. A similar change took place in earlier times, when the share of employment in agriculture declined while agricultural output increased. The loss of agricultural jobs was offset at least in part by growth in other parts of the economy, especially manufacturing. What needs understanding today are overall changes in the economy and how jobs classified as manufacturing and services are recorded.
Employment data by firm and industry are collected on a plant and enterprise basis where the enterprise may consist of several plants. Each plant typically employs a combination of manufacturing and service sector personnel. The former include assembly line workers and the latter accounting, legal, secretarial and others. While the latter appear in national statistics as employees in the manufacturing sector, they are actually providing service-type employment.
If a firm decides to contract out the accounting and legal work to service sector firms which specialize in these activities, then manufacturing employment declines and services employment increases. Overall employment may remain unchanged.
(By the way a similar phenomenon occurs when plants and firms are allocated to industries. If a plant produces mainly automobiles but some bicycles, it will be allocated for reporting and data collection purposes to the industry where most of the production occurs, in this case automobiles. The bicycle industry will in turn under-report production of those bicycles produced in the automotive industry).
The loss of jobs in manufacturing can occur because manufacturing firms reorganize their operations by outsourcing service sector jobs. The reverse may be true if they insource certain services. The former case may be one reason for the loss of manufacturing employment. As technological change occurs, manufacturers are continually changing their production processes. The use of robots for humans on assembly lines will reduce the number of assembly line manufacturing workers, but increase the number of workers required to service the robotic equipment, positions that did not previously exist.
The services-manufacturing dichotomy means that a worker who uses a wrench on the assembly line is classified as a manufacturing employee, while a worker who programs a computer to instruct the robot to do the same work is a service worker. The distinction between what is considered manufacturing and services work can be messy.
Magnus Lodefalk, who has studied this issue for both Sweden and other industrialized countries, notes the following: (Review of World Economics (2014) 150:59-82)
Manufacturing in industrialised countries is intensifying its use of services, and there are indications that the share of services in total turnover is rising. On the input side, the ratio of bought-into value added services has increased since 1995 across all manufacturing industries, and in-house services production has also expanded. The manufacturing sector increasingly employs mathematicians, engineers, computing professionals and business professionals. Services used or produced by manufacturing ﬁrms include research and development (R&D) services but also extend to knowledge or intangible capital services more generally, as well as to services such as telecommunication and transport. On the output side, the share of services in total turnover also has grown since the mid 1990s for some countries. Regarding export, Lodefalk studies Sweden and ﬁnds that manufacturing’s service exports have more than doubled between 1998 and 2006. There are arguments for the ability of services to support exports in manufacturing. Services may help ﬁrms to overcome costly informal barriers, such as asymmetric information, in international trade. Changes on the demand side in industrialised countries are also likely to favour manufacturing ﬁrms that increase the services content of their offerings.”
This is not to ignore the simultaneous growth of low paid service sector jobs in food and beverage operations and homecare businesses among other. What is happening is the simultaneous growth of highly paid skilled jobs in manufacturing and some services, and the growth of low paid service sector jobs in certain areas. The medium skilled jobs are in decline or growing slowly. A TED lecture by David Autor (Dec.2016) is worth viewing as it sets out how the skill structure of the labour force changes and is always changing.
The implications include the need for retraining existing members of the labour force and assuring that young people, new entrants, get the right skills. There is nothing new about such advice except that the speed of change may be faster now and educational and training institutions slower to provide the required skills. People can expect this to happen throughout their working lives.