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November 2020 | Vol. 9 / No. 16
EMPLOYMENT & UNEMPLOYMENT

Forty years of falling manufacturing employment

By Katelynn Harris

Despite being a leading driver of employment growth for decades, manufacturing has shed employment over the past 40 years as the U.S. economy has shifted to service-providing industries.  In June 1979, manufacturing employment reached an all-time peak of 19.6 million. In June 2019, employment was at 12.8 million, down 6.7 million or 35 perce­nt from the all-time peak.1 Since 1979, employment fell during each of five recessions, and in each case, employment never fully recovered to prerecession levels.2 This Beyond the Numbers article looks at the broad employment trends in manufacturing over the past 40 years, as well as the trends in specific industries that have been most affected, such as fabricated metals and machinery, and computer and electrical products, and apparel and textile industries.  Data are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics (CES) program.

Steady, cyclical growth, 1939–79

During the 40-year buildup to the June 1979 peak, manufacturing employment experienced steady but cyclical growth. (See chart 1.) Omitting the industrialization that occurred during World War II, we find that manufacturing’s share of total nonfarm employment peaked in May 1953 at 32 percent. After World War II, employment declined with each recession, but then rebounded during each recovery. In the 1960s, manufacturing employment growth accelerated. From February 1961 to August 1969, manufacturing added 4 million jobs, a 27-percent increase. Two recessions during the early 1970s saw manufacturing lose 1.5 million and 2 million jobs, respectively, with a recovery period in between. During the period of expansion from July 1975 through June 1979, manufacturing added 3 million jobs, and employment in the industry stood at 19.6 million. 

Declines after 1979

At its peak in June 1979, manufacturing employment represented 22 percent of total nonfarm employment, but that share had fallen to 9 percent by June 2019. Manufacturing’s falling share of employment coincided with job growth in service-providing industries, including professional and business services, education and health services, and leisure and hospitality. (See table 1.) 

Table 1. Employment in manufacturing and selected industries, 1979–2019, seasonally adjusted, in thousands
Industry June 1979 June 2019 Change in Employment Change in percentage of total nonfarm employment
Employment Percentage of total nonfarm Employment Employment Percentage of total nonfarm Employment

Total nonfarm

90,108 150,759 60,651

Manufacturing

19,553 22 12,838 9 -6,715 -13

Durable goods

12,320 14 8,064 5 -4,256 -8

Nondurable goods

7,233 8 4,774 3 -2,459 -5

Mining and logging

1,004 1 741 0 -263 -1

Construction

4,604 5 7,497 5 2,893 0

Trade, transportation, and utilities

18,294 20 27,686 18 9,392 -2

Information

2,391 3 2,865 2 474 -1

Financial services

4,840 5 8,732 6 3,892 0

Professional and business services

7,346 8 21,294 14 13,948 6

Education and health services

6,770 8 24,131 16 17,361 8

Leisure and hospitality

6,623 7 16,526 11 9,903 4

Other services

2,638 3 5,896 4 3,258 1

Government

16,045 18 22,553 15 6,508 -3

Note: Ellipsis indicates data are not computable.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Durable and nondurable goods

By June 2019, manufacturers of both durable goods and nondurable goods lost more than one-third of jobs held in June 1979.3 Employment in durable goods fell by 4.3 million, while nondurable goods lost 2.5 million jobs over the 40-year span.

Employment in durable goods has been more sensitive to recessions than in nondurable goods. (See chart 2.) Durable goods industries lost, on average, 10 percent of jobs throughout each recession.

Durable goods industries also served as a good indicator that a recession was looming. With the exception of the recession in the early 1980s, durable goods employment reached a peak at least 6 months before the beginning of a recession. After each recession, durable goods employment never quite recovered before turning down again. After both recessions in the 1980s, only about half of the lost jobs returned. During the recession of 1990, durable goods experienced a long downturn; employment reached a peak 19 months before the recession began and did not turn up again until 28 months after the recession ended. Durable goods lost 2 million jobs in both the 2001 and 2007 recessions. However, since February 2010, durable goods has experienced consistent growth and had recovered 1 million jobs as of June 2019.4

Employment in nondurable goods has been much less cyclical and has experienced a general long-term downward trend that started in the mid-1990s and continued until reaching a trough in December 2011. On average, nondurable goods lost around 5 percent of employment during each recession. By June 2019, nondurable goods had recovered 340,000 jobs since its most recent employment trough.

Combining industries for analysis

Most CES employment series for manufacturing industries do not extend back to 1979 using the current industry coding structure. From 1979-90, CES classified data using the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC)-based system. Since 1990, CES has classified data using the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS).5 To best represent 40 years of history by industry, employment for one or more industries was summed or subtracted to create the employment series analyzed in this article.6 Exhibit 1 shows durable goods industries developed for the 40-year analysis.  To create the series for wood products and furniture for 1979-90, sum employment for lumber and wood products (SIC 24) and furniture and fixtures (SIC 25), then subtract employment for logging (NAICS 1133), which was removed from manufacturing with the conversion to NAICS.  To represent the series from 1990-2019, sum employment for wood products (NAICS 321) and furniture and related products (NAICS 337). In some instances, the development of a 40-year history uses employment from one SIC series and from one NAICS Series, because limited industry reclassification occurred.  For example, nonmetallic mineral products is composed of stone, clay and glass products (SIC 32) for 1979-90 and nonmetallic mineral products (NAICS 327) for 1990-2019. Exhibit 2 shows how nondurable goods manufacturing industries were developed to cover the 40-year span.

Exhibit 1. Select durable goods industries classified using the Standard Industry Classification system and North American Industry Classification System industries, 1979–2019 
Durable goods Data classified using the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system, 1979–90 Data classified using the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), 1990–2019

Wood products and furniture

Lumber and wood products (SIC 24) + Furniture and fixtures (SIC 25) - Logging (NAICS 1133) Wood products (NAICS 321) + Furniture and related products (NAICS 337)

Nonmetallic mineral products

Stone, clay and glass products (SIC 32) Nonmetallic mineral products (NAICS 327)

Fabricated metal products and machinery

Fabricated metal products (SIC 34) + Industrial machinery and equipment (SIC 35) Fabricated metal products (NAICS 332) + Machinery (NAICS 333)

Computer and electrical products

Electronic and other electrial equipment (SIC 36) + Instruments and related products (SIC 38) Computer and electronic products (NAICS 334) + Electrial equipment and appliances (NAICS 335)

Transportation equipment

Transportation equipment (SIC 37) Transportation equipment (NAICS 336)
Exhibit 2. Select nondurable goods industries classified using the Standard Industry Classification system and North American Industry Classification System industries, 1979–2019
Nondurable goods Data classified using the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system, 1979–90 Data classified using the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), 1990–2019

Food manufacturing

Food and kindred products (SIC 20) - beverages (SIC 208) Food manufacturing (NAICS 311)

Apparel and textile industries

Textile mill products (SIC 22) + Apparel and other textile products (SIC 23) Textile mills (NAICS 313) + Textile product mills (NAICS 314) + Apparel (NAICS 315)

Paper and paper products

Paper and allied products (SIC 26) Paper and paper products (NAICS 322)

Printing and publishing

Printing and publishing (SIC 27) Printing and related support activities (NAICS 323) + Publishing industries, except internet (NAICS 511)

Petroleum

Petroleum and coal products (SIC 29) Petroleum and coal products (NAICS 324)

Chemicals

Chemicals and allied products (SIC 28) Chemicals (NAICS 325)

Plastics and rubber

Rubber and miscellaneous plastics products (SIC 30) Plastics and rubber products (NAICS 326)

Using the series as defined in exhibits 1 and 2, we created new employment data series. For the 1979–1990 period, the employment series are constructed on data that were collected under the SIC-industry structure. For the 1990–2009 period, the series are constructed on a NAICS-industry structure. Because there is not perfect comparability between these two industry structures, we note the series breaks between the periods as the difference between the January 1990 levels for SIC-based and NAICS-based industries. In order to examine employment trends across the entire 40-year period without influence from classification structure changes, we subtract this break from the employment change over the 40 year period. (See exhibit 1.) To help show the long-term trend without series breaks, we index these data to January 1990 levels (as seen in charts 3 and 4).

Manufacturing component industries experienced widespread job losses over the past 40 years. Between June 1979 and January 1990, fabricated metals and machinery lost the largest number of jobs. The industry continued to shed jobs through the early 1990s until the mid-1990s, when hiring picked up pace again. Employment in the industry failed to fully recover with subsequent cyclical swings.

Wood products and furniture experienced cyclical job gains and losses from June 1979 until April 2000, when it reached an employment peak. Since then, the industry has lost half a million jobs, or 60 percent of the April 2000 peak.

Beginning in 2001 through the end of the Great Recession, computer and electrical products suffered steep jobs losses.7 Since then, however, employment has been flat. In total, computer and electrical products lost over 1.1 million jobs from January 1990 to June 2019, more than double the jobs losses of fabricated metals and machinery combined. (See table 2.)

Table 2. Manufacturing employment by industry, seasonally adjusted, 1979–2019, in thousands
Industry SIC-based January 1990 break[1] NAICS-based
June 1979 January 1990 Change June 1979–January 1990 January 1990 June 2019 Change January 1990–June 2019

Manufacturing[2]

19553 17797 -1756 0 17797 12838 -4,959

Durable goods[2]

12320 10784 -1536 0 10784 8064 -2,720

Wood products and furniture

1,195 1,182 -13 -8 1,174 795 -379

Nonmetallic mineral products

678 568 -110 -28 540 421 -119

Fabricated metal products and machinery

4,253 3,530 -723 -487 3,043 2,622 -421

Computer and electrical products

2,814 2,718 -96 -130 2,588 1,484 -1,105

Transportation equipment

2,083 1,922 -161 144 2,066 1,738 -329

Nondurable goods[2]

7233 7013 -220 0 7013 4774 -2,239

Food manufacturing

1,492 1,478 -14 30 1,508 1,636 127

Apparel and textile industries

2,194 1,771 -423 -86 1,685 334 -1,351

Paper and paper products

700 696 -4 -49 647 365 -282

Printing and publishing

1,235 1,563 328 104 1,667 1,188 -479

Petroleum

209 156 -53 -4 152 115 -37

Chemicals

1,114 1,084 -30 -48 1,036 849 -187

Plastics and rubber

828 886 58 -62 824 737 -87

[1]Break results from significant changes in industry classification structures.

[2]NAICS is used for entire time period. Industry details do not add up to durable, nondurable, and total manufacturing because some series have been excluded.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Employment in computer and electrical products declined by 43 percent between June 1979 and June 2019, the largest relative loss in durable goods manufacturing.8 (See chart 3.) Conversely, transportation equipment experienced about half the rate of jobs loss of computer and electrical products over the same period. On average, durable goods industries shed 35 percent of jobs over the 40-year span.

Employment in nondurable goods manufacturing remained relatively flat from June 1979 to January 1990, largely because of offsetting movements in apparel and textile products and in printing and publishing. (See chart 4.) Apparel and textile products suffered the largest employment loss (about 423,000 jobs) of nondurable goods manufacturing industries, while printing and publishing added the most jobs (about 328,000) during the time period. The job losses in apparel and textile products continued from January 1990 until June 2019, with the industry cutting 1.4 million jobs, or 55 percent of all job losses in nondurable goods. Printing and publishing continued to add jobs until reaching an employment peak of 1.9 million in August 2000. By June 2019, employment in printing and publishing was down 36 percent from the August 2000 peak. Of all the manufacturing component industries, food manufacturing was the only industry to add jobs from January 1990 to June 2019. (See table 2.)

In relative terms, apparel and textile industries lost an astonishing 81 percent of jobs from June 1979 to June 2019.9 (See chart 4.) In contrast, food manufacturing employment rose by about 8 percent and represented the only manufacturing component industry to add jobs. Both printing and publishing (-12 percent) and plastics and rubber (-4 percent) experienced smaller job losses over the 40-year span.

Conclusion

In the 40 years since manufacturing employment peaked, the industry has struggled to regain the prominence it once had. Notable job losses occurred within durable goods manufacturing, especially fabricated metals and machinery, and computer and electrical products. Within nondurable goods manufacturing, apparel and textile industries suffered dramatic jobs losses, while food manufacturing was the only component industry to add jobs. Although there were more recessions (seven) during the 40 years prior to peak employment, compared with the number (five) after the peak, manufacturing employment failed to fully recover from any of the cyclical losses after June 1979 and resulted in a 34-percent net loss over the 40 years following the peak.

This Beyond the Numbers article was prepared by Katelynn Harris, economist, Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Telephone: (202) 691-6219. Email: harris.katelynn@bls.gov

Information in this article will be made available upon request to individuals with sensory impairments. Voice phone: (202) 691-5200. Federal Relay Service: 1-800-877-8339. This article is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

Suggested citation:

Katelynn Harris, “Forty years of falling manufacturing employment,” Beyond the Numbers: Employment & Unemployment, vol. 9, no. 16 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2020), https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-9/forty-years-of-falling-manufacturing-employment.htm

1 Employment data are from the Current Employment Statistics program of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/ces

2 Recessions are defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

3 Nondurable goods products are able to be used only for a relatively short time (life expectancy of less than 3 years) before deteriorating. Nondurable goods include textiles, food, clothing, petroleum, and chemical products. Durable goods are products with a longer life expectancy. Durable goods include automobiles, home appliances, and furniture.

4 Durable goods employment trough following the 2007–09 recession.

5 NAICS and SIC data must be accessed from two separate databases. NAICS can be found here: https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/dsrv?ce and SIC here: https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/dsrv?ee

6 Miscellaneous durable goods and miscellaneous nondurable goods have been excluded from analysis because those series could not be reliably reconstructed. 

7 The Great Recession occurred from December 2007 until June 2009 according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

8 The relative employment over the entire period excludes effects of the employment breaks that resulted from the SIC to NAICS reclassification where some employment may have been reclassified into or out of the series analyzed.

9 The relative employment over the entire period excludes effects of the employment breaks that resulted from the SIC to NAICS reclassification where some employment may have been reclassified into or out of the series analyzed.

Publish Date: Friday, November 20, 2020