“In recessions of any kind, automation is accelerated because paying workers just becomes more expensive,” Muro said. “Meanwhile, technology and automation has improved and gotten cheaper so it’s easily used.”
More than half of U.S. companies report being more willing to invest in automation as a result of the pandemic, a July survey by Honeywell Intelligrated found. Tyson is shifting to robotic butchers; BMW is implementing artificial intelligence quality control. As of May, sourcing for automation equipment was up nearly 150 percent year-over-year, and up over 20 percent from last quarter. Long before Trump took office, the U.S. was already well on its way to becoming more efficient at manufacturing with fewer workers. Over the past three decades, output has grown even as employment has declined.
“The fact which gets lost in some of the discussion is that in and of itself, that improvement in productivity — making more stuff per unit of labor input — is a good thing,” said Jeffrey Miron, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute. But it also leads to the displacement of workers, and when Trump moved to impose tariffs on Chinese steel, aluminum and other products, that only served to accelerate the effect, economists say. Higher prices for imports have decreased demand, which — when combined with a global economic slowdown — contributed to depress manufacturing employment. On top of that, American exporters are hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries.
“A couple of things have played into the manufacturing job losses: One is trade,” said Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University who studies manufacturing. “The second, and the bigger effect, really, is the productivity growth of American manufacturing.”
Trump’s reelection campaign maintains that he has bolstered the manufacturing sector during his time in office, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that were added prepandemic.
“Back in 2016, people doubted President Trump could revive manufacturing in the United States, with then-President Obama saying he would need a ‘magic wand’ to bring back manufacturing jobs — but President Trump’s policies delivered,” campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager said. “President Trump is already rebuilding our economy, adding back manufacturing jobs, and continuing to promote policies that boost American manufacturers, no magic wand needed.”
Trump “talked a lot about manufacturing, but the policies he engaged in were predictably damaging to manufacturing,” Hicks said. "As a result of the tariffs his administration imposed, “people buy less [manufactured goods], and if they buy less of them, that causes lower demand for employment.”
Whether Trump wins reelection come November — and is free to continue his trade wars — could have an outsize impact on the U.S. manufacturing workforce, particularly given the sector's relatively modest job gains since February.
“The returns from layoffs are probably over,” Hicks said. “And so if that’s the case, if we see a second term of the Trump presidency, I would expect manufacturing employment to not be able to crawl back to what it was at the end of the Obama administration.”
When workers lose their jobs in manufacturing, they are most likely to be rehired in the service industry, economists say. It’s often lower-skilled workers who are the first to go, particularly when displaced by automation — and when they do, low levels of education and barriers to relocation mean that they typically end up working in restaurants.
“For 30 years, manufacturing workers have been continually dislocated by robotics and wind up working in service jobs, or moving into nonparticipation,” Muro said. ”The older they were at the time of dislocation, the less likely they have been to rejoin the workforce.”
“Almost person-for-person that we lost in manufacturing, we gained in restaurants,” William Spriggs, AFL-CIO’s chief economist, said.
The associated drop in wages — manufacturing workers made an average of $28.78 an hour in July, while food service employees made an average of $15.50 — has served to exacerbate economic inequality, Spriggs said.
“The slide, if people leave that industry, seems to be that they don’t end up in some other high-wage industry,” Spriggs said.