President Obama spent much of his State of the Union address on the flood of manufacturing jobs from the United States to China and other foreign countries. He proposed some sensible measures to “bring jobs home.”
What he didn’t tell about was his encounter last February with former Apple leader, Steve Jobs, that shed fresh light on the outsourcing problem. It was at an industry dinner in California. As reported by the New York Times, the president asked Mr. Jobs what it would take to make Apple’ iPhones in the U.S. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones that Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
The Times quoted a dinner guest on the exchange between the two men. The president asked, why can’t that work come home? Mr. Jobs replied: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”
His point was that the main reason for outsourcing was not that foreign labor was cheaper but that foreign workers and foreign companies could produce goods faster and better than could American companies. Apple executives told the Times that it had needed 8,700 industrial engineers to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. Their analysts had forecast that it would take nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.
The Times reported that in 2007, when the iPhone was about to go on sale, Mr. Jobs showed his executives the scratches on the plastic screen of a prototype he had been carrying in his pocket. He told them: “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched. I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”
One of the executives promptly flew to Shenzhen, China, where a company had already constructed a new wing in hopes it could get an Apple contract. As the Times told it, a foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers in the company’s dormitories. “Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.”
The more than two-page Times takeout barely mentioned the condition of Chinese workers and almost made outsourcing seem benevolent. Four days later, the newspaper published a similarly long article showing the dark downside of Apple’s outsourcing. It told of laborers standing so long at workstations that their legs swelled so they could barely walk. It reported at great length the death of a worker in an explosion at an Apple factory in China.
President Obama said American companies should not be rewarded for outsourcing and that this country needs better technological education to supply workers for manufacturing jobs. He was right in proposing tax-cutting incentives for American firms that hired American workers. And his proposal is to have one program, one website and one place to go for information and help in getting a job. As he put it, “It is time to turn our unemployment system into a reemployment system that puts people to work.”
Maine’s L.L. Bean Co. describes itself as one of the last American holdouts to turn to offshore production of apparel and footwear. Carolyn Beem, public affairs manager, said that Bean’s decisions came when American manufacturers were leaving. “We were increasingly finding disadvantages in terms of price and choice of producers, as our competitors moved offshore.” She said that Bean now employs more than 400 people making Bean’s boots and other products in Brunswick and Lewiston, and “we have never found an issue with the quality of U.S. workers.”
She did say that 135 recently recruited factory workers for the company’s Brunswick facility required extensive training to bring them up to speed in shoemaking. She said Bean’s production in this country remains competitive because of the quality of the work force and the efficiency of the work process.
Your next Apple purchase probably will be made overseas, but how satisfying it would be to see “Made in USA” once again inside the collar of your next L.L. Bean shirt?