The dearth of electronics manufacturing in the US: More than met my eye

This article provoked quite a few thoughts, but I don’t think it’s worth the time to write an essay. I don’t really have any solutions to these problems, so an essay-style piece would just be pretty wrapping for fragments anyway.

But here’s my fragments:

– I thought manufacturing in Shenzhen was mostly a matter of costs for technology companies. It’s not.

In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend.

Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.”

I would have loved to buy a “fair-trade” iPhone that cost $600 or so. But it turns out not even that is possible.

– Why don’t we have these technical workers? Well, “many reasons” is always the right answer, but I think our fetishization (or maybe “fetishization” is an over-emphatic way of saying “over-emphasization”) of Making It to the Top is part of it. Our insistence that everyone strive to be important millionaires makes vocational jobs (I know – redundant, but I can’t think of how better to describe them) seem like loser business, so people go for bachelor’s degrees in something they can’t get work doing. We’re forcing too many variously-shaped pegs through round holes.

Have you made fun of DeVry? I know I have. Yet, it’s good work, and people could be happy doing it.

– Factories are in China, not just because of the labor cost and available skill, but because everything else is also there, which makes logistics easier and cheaper.

The entire supply chain is in China now,” said another former high-ranking Apple executive. “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.

I’d actually heard about a pro-US effect of proximity last week: American stringed instruments factories are still competitive with Chinese ones because of the prohibitive cost of shipping cellos and double basses overseas. Yup, didn’t think of this one, either.

So, it’s not just, oh, we tweak this or we tweak that, and we get manufacturing work back. There has to be a manufacturing “community” in place. And to get that, we’d have to commit to developing for decades.

I have doubts about our ability as a nation to commit to anything for decades.

– I don’t think that we necessarily need to bring back electronics manufacturing in order to prosper. (We do, however, need to use our work force in better and more varied ways.) However, I’ve heard people, when discussing how well the American economy is doing, point to Apple and Google or some other fantastically successful company.

“If you scale up from selling one million phones to 30 million phones, you don’t really need more programmers,” said Jean-Louis Gassée, who oversaw product development and marketing for Apple until he left in 1990. “All these new companies — Facebook, Google, Twitter — benefit from this. They grow, but they don’t really need to hire much.”

So, what does that get the country as a whole? It gets us prestige, which not worth nothing. But the success of multinational corporations that started in US doesn’t really help you or me (yeah, some of you work for these companies, so it does help you, but you know what I’m saying) all that much.

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