Sewing seeds of manufacturing growth

The NY Times has a fascinating article on the increasing demand for American made goods, particularly textiles, and the limited supply of labour with the relevant skills.

There is plenty more to the story than just manufacturing increasing in the US – it also includes an historical perspective on the sources of labour in the textile industry over the last two centuries.

The relevance for me and South Africa is – even with our 40% duties on imported textiles, why are we still shedding jobs? In the US, it’s been a desire for higher quality, more reliable quality, shorter turnaround times, cheaper transport costs and a growing discomfort with safety conditions in Asia.

The higher average incomes in the US also make price less of a overriding factor than in South Africa. The COSATU t shirts that were made in China at least once is a clear reminder of how cost impacts buying decisions above almost all else in big parts of our economy. I don’t know whether the quality of our production and the appreciation for buying locally made products is great enough locally yet. The NY Times article spend several paragraphs talking about the need for strong English and Maths skills. We’re still struggling with our legacy of broken education even while we fail current learners. None of this helps to take advantage of these trends.

Manufacturing growth in the US and other developed markets is also driven by increased automation. Higher real wage are less critical when automation in eras decreasing the amount of labour required. Possibly counterintuitively, this increases the demand for labour in developed countries even while decreasing global demand for labour.

Wages for cut-and-sew jobs, the core of the apparel industry’s remaining work force, have been rising fast — increasing 13.2 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis from 2007 to 2012

If you look at a graph of the share of US GDP that goes to labour compared to capital, it’s been a steady decrease for decades. I can only imagine the same is true in South Africa. The increased use of automation (including new robots that work more interactively with humans in auto plants) may drive this even further.

So is this a story that bodes well for South Africa? We should be a low (lower than the US and Europe anyway) wage producer so developed market manufacturing should hurt our export industry. Given that we import textiles from China, should we maintain hope – against all experience of the last two decades – of regaining a meaningful textile industry? Or do we need to recognize that Africa should be our biggest export area and we should leverage our proximity, both geographical and cultural, and focus on our competitive advantages over the Chinese? Where is our Industrial Policy in any of this?