Boost in Factory Jobs Under Trump Favors Sunny Frontiers Over Ailing Hubs

In President Trump’s first two years in office, factory job growth accelerated, an achievement he has been claiming credit for ahead of the 2020 election, particularly in the industrial Midwest. His administration is “restoring American manufacturing,” Mr. Trump told workers at an Ohio factory in March.

Some of the 465,000 factory jobs that the country created in 2017 and 2018 are in the most economically beleaguered counties that voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. But the biggest winners have not been the traditional manufacturing hubs where workers have been hammered this century by outsourcing and automation, federal statistics show.

Instead, factory job creation has flowed to frontiers of the advanced manufacturing economy — like Nevada, home to a Tesla factory that churns out batteries for electric cars, homes and utilities — and oil-patch epicenters like Tulsa, Okla. The strong growth includes large contributions from the booming craft brewing, wine and spirits industries, which the federal government classifies as manufacturing and added nearly 30,000 jobs in that time.

The vast majority of the factory jobs have come in counties that were already adding factory employment before Mr. Trump took office. And a disproportionate share of the expansion was concentrated in prosperous areas like Silicon Valley and Houston.

An analysis of those statistics by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank that studies regional inequality and pushes for policies to combat it, reveals a mixed political and economic picture for Mr. Trump. His 2016 victory was forged with upsets in manufacturing hubs like Michigan and Pennsylvania, and he has reveled in blue-collar job growth on his watch.

A combination of tax cuts and deregulation pushed by the Trump administration appears to have fueled a widespread, though possibly temporary, increase in the pace of job creation in manufacturing. Production jobs increased in many more counties in Mr. Trump’s first two years than under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2016.

Those gains have started slowing this year, in part under strain from the president’s trade wars with China and other countries. And it appears doubtful that Mr. Trump will achieve his campaign promise of restoring the millions of factory jobs that many states and counties lost over the last two decades.

The United States lost nearly six million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010 as companies moved production to China and other low-cost countries, increased use of machines on factory floors and scaled back operations after the 2008 financial crisis. The economy has regained just under 1.5 million, but not always in the places that lost the most.

The Mountain West and the energy-rich Great Plains have experienced much faster factory job growth than the Great Lakes states that are crucial to Mr. Trump’s hopes of winning a second term. Nearly every state west of the Mississippi added manufacturing jobs faster than the national average in 2017 and 2018, the analysis shows. Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were all at or below average. And several Northeastern states, including New York, Massachusetts and Vermont, lost factory jobs.

As a result, Nevada, the Dakotas and Utah have regained the manufacturing jobs they lost after 2000 — and then some. Pennsylvania still has only two-thirds of the factory jobs it had at the turn of the century, and Michigan is down nearly as much. Rhode Island has recovered the fewest production jobs of any state.

Nearly half the counties that had more manufacturing employment in 2018 than in 2010 are in the West. But not all Western counties fared well. Los Angeles County lost more than 11,000 factory jobs and nearby Ventura County nearly 4,000 in Mr. Trump’s first two years in office.

Administration officials celebrate job growth in manufacturing — and credit Mr. Trump’s policies — but acknowledge that it has mostly helped more prosperous parts of the country, at least so far.

“If you look, there are a heck of a lot of successful manufacturing parts of the country right now,” Kevin Hassett, the departing chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview. “But look at where they’re being created.”

Mr. Hassett drew a distinction between “creative destruction” parts of the country, where the Great Recession wiped out jobs but others sprung up to replace them, and “destruction-destruction” parts, where jobs have been slow to return. Recent factory job growth, he said, was “not necessarily disproportionately in the destruction-destruction places.”

Mr. Hassett said many of those left-behind areas would add more factory jobs as a result of the opportunity zone program in the tax overhaul that Mr. Trump signed in 2017, which aims to steer investment to distressed communities.

The list of counties that added the most manufacturing jobs in 2017 and 2018 highlights that divide. It is led by Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston and factories that supply the oil and gas industry. It also includes Alameda County, Calif., in the Bay Area, and Storey County, Nev., east of Reno, which are home to Tesla plants that added jobs after Mr. Trump took office.

Only two of the top 10 counties are in the industrial Midwest: Macomb County, Mich., near Detroit, and Peoria County in western Illinois.

  • Harris County, Tex. 11,592 jobs

  • Storey County, Nev. 10,197

  • Santa Clara County, Calif. 9,909

  • Alameda County, Calif. 9,855

  • Maricopa County, Ariz. 9,674

  • Peoria County, Ill. 8,429

  • Tulsa County, Okla. 8,381

  • Tarrant County, Tex. 6,327

  • Orange County, Calif. 6,242

  • Macomb County, Mich. 5,991

Source: Economic Innovation Group and Labor Department

Nearly half the job gains were in the most prosperous quintile of counties in America, according to the Economic Innovation Group, even though those counties accounted for just 40 percent of the nation’s factory jobs before Mr. Trump took office. And in an indication that many of the gains may be part of long-running economic trends, two-thirds of the new positions were in counties that added jobs from 2010 through 2016.

Still, there are some signs of hope for the counties that the group rates as the most economically distressed quintile. Collectively, they lost factory jobs throughout the Obama administration, but they added more than 20,000 during Mr. Trump’s first two years, with the biggest gains in the Southeast, including Tennessee, the Carolinas, Arkansas and Georgia.

“The manufacturing sector is steadily realigning after the shocks of the early part of this century,” said John Lettieri, the president of the Economic Innovation Group, which came up with the idea for the opportunity zone program. “The West is emerging as a new growth engine for the sector, and manufacturing’s rebound is finally reaching many distressed areas of the country.”

He added, “These gains are real but still fragile.”

The fragility is a result of a global manufacturing slowdown, which many analysts link to Mr. Trump’s tariffs on imports from China — among other products — and the escalation of trade tensions with countries around the world.

American manufacturers have added just 13,000 jobs since January, according to the Labor Department, down from an average of 19,000 a month during Mr. Trump’s first two years in office.

“Manufacturing have a trifecta of headwinds in their face: an overhang of inventories, weak global growth and tariffs,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the auditing firm Grant Thornton.

It is hard to quantify the effect precisely, but “there are indications that some of this tariff stuff may be having a slowing effect on hiring in the manufacturing sector,” said Jay Bryson, global economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, N.C. “One suspects that tariffs may be playing a role there.”

Administration officials remain optimistic that the slowdown in factory jobs is temporary and that Mr. Trump’s policies will drive manufacturing growth in more places.

“My own personal view is there is a little mini inventory correction going on,” as manufacturers work through stockpiles of goods, Larry Kudlow, the director of Mr. Trump’s National Economic Council, said on Thursday. “I can’t get too worried about it.”

Jeanna Smialek and Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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