Away from spotlight, U.S. manufacturers battle back from 'China shock'

Thu Aug 4, 2016 2:09pm EDT
 
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By Howard Schneider

HICKORY, North Carolina (Reuters) - As furniture makers left Hickory and headed to China at the start of the century, the local community college shuttered its courses in furniture production, abandoning an industry that had sustained this North Carolina community for generations.

Little more than a decade later jobs are coming back. The industry, retooled to focus on custom fabrics and designs, is now struggling to fill hundreds of positions and the college is reviving programs to meet that demand.

The U.S. economy lost almost a third of its manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010 and the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's pledge to get tough with China and rip up trade pacts to "bring jobs back" has resonated among millions of blue-collar voters. Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, as well, has shifted her position on trade.

A Reuters analysis of federal and other data shows, however, that some of the areas hardest hit by the "China shock," including the furniture hub of Hickory, are beginning to claw back jobs in industries that were most affected by foreign competition.

The four-county Hickory metro area of 350,000 has added more than 2,800 manufacturing jobs since 2010, and furniture manufacturers nationally have added 30,000 jobs over the past five years. Nationwide, manufacturing added 800,000 jobs since 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is comparable to the number of jobs that economists estimate were lost due to Chinese imports through 2007, the eve of the U.S. financial crisis and recession. Recent research by Federal Reserve and private economists have put that number at between 800,000 and 1 million. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/2aCE9Js)

Officials in Hickory say trade worries now take a back seat to issues like adequate financing for greenfield projects, training for workers, and how to stem an exodus of local young people to big cities.

"In 1997 we were the fastest growing manufacturing metro area in the country and four years later it collapsed," said Donald Duncan, city manager of the Catawba County city of Conover, part of the Hickory metro area in central North Carolina. "What you can see on the ground today is 3,000 job openings.

China's emergence as the world's low-cost producer and export superpower following its World Trade Organization entry in 2001 dealt a heavy blow to traditional industrial communities such as Hickory.   Continued...

 
Elizabeth Fowler works as a trainee upholsterer on the assembly line at Vanguard Furniture in Hickory, North Carolina, U.S., July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Howard Schneider