Ebb & Flow

Trade, exports and FDI

By Michael Randle

There’s a lot of talk right now about trade agreements. Not all of the usual suspects are in support of two proposed free trade agreements in this political cycle. Some blame NAFTA and free trade in general as elements that have reduced the middle class in the U.S., while building the middle class in Mexico and elsewhere. Yet, in 2015, almost 50 percent of U.S. exports went to the 20 countries the U.S. currently has free trade agreements with. Those countries do not include any in Europe, nor do they include China or Japan.

We do have free trade agreements with Australia, South Korea, Israel, Singapore, several countries in Central and South America, and, of course, Mexico and Canada. With the FTA countries, the U.S. enjoyed a trade surplus in manufactured goods of about $12 billion last year. Not so much with those we do not have trade agreements with. . .regarding those countries, we have a trade deficit of about $500 billion.

There are two major trade agreements that are currently proposed. One is with the European Union and the United States, trading partners that accounted for about one-third of U.S. exports last year. Called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it is a companion agreement with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That agreement involves 12 countries: the U.S., Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru. The pact is designed to create stronger economic relations between the member nations, cutting tariffs and fostering trade to boost growth in exports and imports.

I will not take sides on the free trade agreement argument. It is a complicated issue. I can clearly see the basis of the arguments for and against these trade agreements. But I do know this: the Southern Automotive Corridor has lost out on nine major automotive assembly plants in the last few years to Mexico, primarily because Mexico has free trade agreements with more than 40 different countries. That’s more than double the number of countries the U.S. has trade agreements with, and that alone is a major factor for manufacturers when it comes to exporting.

Exports fall for the first time since the recession

For the first time since the end of the recession, the total value of U.S.-exported goods fell from one year to the next. In 2015, the U.S. exported about $1.5 trillion in goods, including high value products such as automobiles, aircraft, machinery, telecommunications and chemicals, among other goods. That was down about 7.5 percent from 2014 when the U.S. exported $1.63 trillion in products, but well above the $1 trillion exported in 2006 prior to the recession. The $1.63 trillion in goods exports in 2014 was the largest total ever for the U.S.

The South also saw a reduction in the value of its exports in 2015 from its record year of $654 billion in 2014. The South exported $61.7 billion less in 2015 than in 2014.

One of the reasons for the drop in exports can be attributed to the resilient U.S. economy. With a strong economy comes a stronger currency. Exports have tumbled in part because of the strong dollar that’s made American-made goods and services more expensive. Put that on top of a weak global economy and it’s not a mystery why exports fell last year.

There are now more middle-class Chinese than there are people in the United States, and they are demanding the purchase of foreign-made products, particularly from the U.S.

Last year, the U.S. was the second largest exporter in the world, behind only China. China exported $2.27 trillion in goods in 2015. Germany was third with $1.3 trillion, followed by Japan with $625 billion. The American South’s total value of $593 billion exported in calendar year 2015 would make it the fifth largest exporter in the world if it were a country.

The 15 states that make up the American South led the other three U.S. regions by a wide margin in export values (see pages 46-47). In fact, the South accounted for 40 percent of U.S. exports last year. If worldwide demand increases this year and next, the region is positioned to set export records because of the increased manufacturing capacity of high value products that have come on line in the last three years or are currently under construction.

For example, all but one of the 17 major automotive assembly plants in the Southern Automotive Corridor have expanded since the end of the recession, three more than twice. And two major automotive assembly plants were announced last year — Volvo and Daimler Vans in South Carolina — that have yet to begin production. Both plants are designed to export at least half of their yearly vehicle production totals.

Furthermore, the fracking frenzy has expanded chemical production in Louisiana and Texas at a furious pace. Additionally, multi-billion dollar LNG export facilities are coming online in Louisiana and Texas, with the first — Cheniere Energy in Southwest Louisiana — already exporting the essential and abundant energy product. New aircraft, spacecraft, engine and rocket production are coming online, and the South is now home to two of the nation’s three large commercial aircraft assembly facilities with Airbus in Mobile, Ala., and Boeing in North Charleston, S.C. The other is Boeing’s massive Puget Sound facility in Washington State.

Job generation tied directly to exporting is growing as well. In 2014 (latest figures available) almost 2.9 million direct jobs were tied to exporting in the 15-state American South. With dozens of inland and deep-water ports — more so than any other U.S. region — the South is set up perfectly for companies that want to expand export capacity.

The rise of the middle class in the South?

In this presidential campaign, a lot has been said of the 40-year decline of the middle class. There is no question the middle class is weaker financially than at any point in the last three generations. Some estimate that prior to the recession, jobs that paid $60,000 were replaced by jobs that pay $40,000. Wage earnings have flattened since the recession ended, even though they are perking up a little as most places in the South have reached, or are near, full employment.

There is also no question that during one of the longest economic expansions in U.S. history, those wages should be higher than they are currently. The stagnant wages are one of just a small number of negatives currently involving the U.S. economy. Otherwise, the data is off the charts, including more large projects announced in the South in 2015 than any year since this publication began counting in 1993.

Two major automotive assembly plants announced last year – Volvo and Daimler Vans in South Carolina – are designed to export at least half of their yearly vehicle production totals.

Look, the executives of companies setting records for new and expanding projects in the South in 2015 are not stupid. If they saw a recession looming, or a challenged economy like you hear about constantly in this presidential election, those same executives wouldn’t have invested a record $90.5 billion in this year’s SB&D 100. Most of those investments won’t even come online for one or two years.

The Great Recession, along with new automation technologies that are taking boots off the factory floor by the tens of thousands, and offshoring manufacturing capacity to China, Mexico and elsewhere from the 1990s to the beginning of the recession have devastated the middle class in this country. Yet, one of the major reasons why the American middle class has been reduced in number may be what helps bring it back.

There is a new middle class that is greatly assisting the world economy right now, one that didn’t even exist 30 years ago. And it’s not the middle class of America. There are now more middle class Chinese than there are people in the United States. The Chinese middle class is growing faster than any economic demographic in the world, and they are demanding the purchase of foreign-made products, particularly from the U.S.

In an article published this summer by Businessinsider.com titled “Chinese imports of U.S. goods are about to soar,” writer Andrew Meola insists that 15 percent of the Chinese population will buy products from a foreign country this year, amounting to more than $85 billion in sales. He forecasts that the number of foreign goods purchased by the Chinese will rise to $157 billion by 2020. And according to a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study, more than 60 percent of Chinese consumers said they would pay more for products made in the U.S. instead of in China. BCG also published a press release in the summer claiming that three-quarters of Chinese consumers plan to maintain or increase spending this year.

So, clearly, the economic dynamics of China are changing. Just a few years ago, there was no middle class in China. Now, it dominates Asia’s economy and prefers American products. This big new customer might just contribute greatly to a renewed and stronger middle class in this country.

The fact that more jobs are returning to the U.S. from China than are going there is also a relatively new phenomenon. Combined with the fact that the Chinese are investing in the U.S. in record numbers, it looks as if China will be bolstering the U.S. economy for years to come. These big changes in how China helps this country’s economy, instead of taking from it, will boost exports to levels never before seen in the U.S.

Foreign Direct Investment

Last year, there were $721 billion in massive cross-border mergers and acquisitions, including Merck KGaA’s $17 billion purchase of the American company Sigma-Aldrich. Merck’s headquarters are in Darmstadt, Germany.

The ebb and flow of goods and money from one country to another is the very essence of the global economy. Last year, there was a record $1.76 trillion in foreign direct investment flows around the world, according to the United Nations. Of that total, there were $721 billion in massive cross-border mergers and acquisitions. Some of those mergers and acquisitions included Merck KGaA’s $17 billion purchase of Sigma-Aldrich and GlaxoSmithKline’s $16 billion purchase of Novartis.

While FDI worldwide set a record, a record was also set in the United States. Expenditures by foreign direct investors rose to $420.7 billion in calendar year 2015, an increase of 68 percent from 2014. These investments by foreign entities included acquisitions, existing industry expansions and new greenfield operations.

Of the $421 billion invested in the U.S. last year, more than half, or $281 billion, was manufacturing related, including new, expanded and acquisition. Within manufacturing, large investments were seen in chemicals, automotive, consumer products, pharmaceuticals and medicines, among other sectors.

Some of the most active foreign investors in the U.S. in 2015 were the typical customers — United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and France. Again, it should be noted that China continues to invest in the U.S. at rates never before seen.

In 2010, China invested just $4.6 billion in the U.S. In 2015, China invested $15.3 billion in 171 U.S. projects according to the Rhodium Group. In the first two quarters of 2016, China has turned 70 deals for a total of $18 billion invested. One of those deals was China-based Haier’s acquisition of GE Appliances and its massive Appliance Park facilities in Louisville, Ky. China’s largest and most active investments the last couple of years have been in automotive, consumer products, information technology, communications technology and real estate.

Until recently, the Chinese have been no-shows when it came to investing in the South, and in North America as a whole for that matter. On average, from 2000 to 2009, Chinese companies invested about $1.7 billion a year in the U.S. That’s the total investment of one small petrochemical plant in Louisiana or Texas today. Strictly speaking, Chinese investment in the U.S. has been chump change. . .until recently.

So, really, for the first time in history, China is playing a direct role in the U.S. economy from a job- and investment-generating position. The number of Chinese-owned companies now operating in the United States at the end of the second quarter of this year is estimated to be about 1,800. Those companies are employing approximately 110,000 people. Employment in China-owned companies, according to Stephen A. Orlins, President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, is expected to quadruple over the next five years. Five years ago, Chinese-affiliated companies employed just 15,000 workers in the U.S.

Some believe that the recent surge in outbound FDI from China is an indication of capital flight. China’s economy the last couple of years has been somewhat chaotic. Because of that volatility, Chinese investors could be stashing away capital in what they believe is a safe economic haven in the U.S. But according to the Rhodium Group, a firm that tracks Chinese investment in the U.S., more than 80 percent of all Chinese FDI transactions in the U.S. in the first half of this year “. . .falls into the category of strategic investment.”

We believe this surge in outbound FDI from China to the U.S. is simpler than capital flight or strategic investments. There is no question that reshoring, onshoring, nearshoring, make it where you sell it — whatever you want to call this economic shift in manufacturing capacity — is driving this Chinese investment run in the South and in the U.S.

For example, if it is getting more difficult to make a profit in manufacturing many products in China for U.S. consumption, wouldn’t it make sense for Chinese manufacturers to offshore production to North America? Also, if it is getting more expensive to manufacture in China, where does that leave Chinese manufacturers? It puts them in the same position as other companies that are reshoring to the U.S. The Chinese are offshoring to the U.S. for economic reasons simply because soon, a manufacturer will be unable to make a profit making something in China for U.S. consumption.

One example of the “make it where you sell it” phenomenon is the proliferation of foreign-made tire facilities announced in the South, including the Yokohama plant in Mississippi.

One example of the “make it where you sell it” phenomenon is the proliferation of foreign-made tire facilities announced in the South in recent years. If you could make tires in Asia for U.S. consumption and make a profit, that’s what Yokohama, Hankook, Kumho, Bridgestone and Giti — just five of the many foreign tire plants announced in the South in recent years — would do. Instead, those companies are finding it more profitable to produce tires here. In fact, at deadline, Chinese tire maker Sentury Tire Americas chose a site near LaGrange, Ga., for a $500 million greenfield plant that will house 600 workers.

Again, the $18 billion in Chinese investment in the United States in the first two quarters of this year represents the best “year” ever. But it doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story. According to Rhodium Group, the value of announced but not completed Chinese investments in the U.S. was near an all-time high of $33 billion at the end of the second quarter.

Some of the pending Chinese merger and acquisition deals out there currently include HNA Group’s $6 billion purchase for Ingram Micro, Anbang’s $6.5 billion acquisition of Strategic Hotels and Apex Technology’s $3.6 billion purchase of Lexington, Ky.-based Lexmark.

By the end of this year, the largest Chinese greenfield investment in the U.S. will be operational. The $1.3 billion Tianjin Pipe (TPCO) facility near Corpus Christi will produce seamless pipe for the energy industry.

In the U.S., there are about $10 billion Chinese greenfield projects that are pending and have not been counted as investments by the end of the second quarter. In the South, those include Sun Paper’s $1.3 billion mill in Arkadelphia, Ark., China Jushi’s $300 million fiberglass plant in Richland County, S.C., and Yangfeng Automotive Interiors’ $71 million plant in Laurens, S.C., and its $55 million plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The large increase in FDI in the U.S. in 2015 is a sure sign that foreign investors view the nation’s economy as one of the safest in what currently is a chaotic world economic marketplace. And why not? For the most part, the nation is at full employment for the first time in 16 years, the stock market is humming and on a cost basis, the U.S. — particularly the South — is very competitive right now with just about any country in the world.

Regarding the current economic conditions in the U.S., Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard wrote this summer, “Dismal though the political mood is today, the U.S. is heading into a remarkable era. The hand of cards America holds is like a royal flush: reliably cheap energy costs; low (on a global scale) real estate costs, especially in the South and Midwest; political stability; military strength; a growing population; the world’s best research universities; and global leadership in all the key digital technologies.”

To conclude, trade, exports and foreign direct investment are looking pretty good today, especially in the South. Other than wages that are stubbornly low, there are not many negatives regarding the U.S. or the South’s economy. Surely, now that the region is at or near full employment, wages must rise, right? Let’s get this presidential election out of the way, which can’t be assisting the economy, and I believe we will find out.

The Future of Our Workforce

Where are we going to find the labor to keep this expansion going?

By Michael Randle

As we take a look at what the future might hold for the American workforce, we want to also take a look back at the history of the worker in our nation. . .and the South in particular. This photograph of a welder working on TVA’s Douglas Dam in Tennessee was taken in 1942 by Alfred T. Palmer.

We are still in the second longest economic recovery period ever in this country, approaching 90 months. On top of that, at 74 months, the U.S. is enjoying what is now the longest stretch of consecutive monthly job creation on record. The recovery has been solid, with about 15 million jobs created, and 11 million of those new jobs. In September, we reached a record low level of layoffs and discharges of 1 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yes, workers are finally winning in this economy.

During this current recovery, the U.S. set a record for the most consecutive months of 200,000 or more new jobs created. Since January 2013, almost 9.7 million jobs have been created, averaging 224,000 new jobs each month. And all of this has been done in a time when the public sector hasn’t created jobs at all. From 2010 to 2013, the private sector added about 6.7 million jobs, while the public sector lost around 626,000, which is unprecedented. During President Obama’s two terms, the public sector saw a loss of 341,000 jobs.

The public sector is typically a huge job generator, especially at the federal level. However, because austerity practices have been implemented in an effort to stop adding to the national debt, lawmakers have slowed the hiring of government jobs. Many states aren’t hiring as well.

Some argue that the recovery from the Great Recession has been slow. Well, it wasn’t called the Great Recession for nothing. It should have been called the Great Crater or the Great Abyss. Long-term unemployment rose to historic highs during and after the recession, and the unemployment rate spiked almost to its post-war high.

The recessions in the early ’80s, ’90s or the one in 2001-2002 cannot even remotely be compared to the recession of 2007-2009.

The reason the climb from the crater has taken longer to get to pre-recession peaks is because the low point of the Great Recession was so low. The U.S. is at pre-recession unemployment lows now, at 4.6 percent, but it took 51 months to get there, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In comparison, the recession of the early 1980s took 11 months to reach pre-recession peaks, and the recession in the early 1990s took 23 months.

Yet, today, from an economic development perspective — at least here in the South — project activity is better than any time since this magazine began charting that activity in 1992. There were 730 projects meeting or exceeding 200 jobs and/or $30 million in investment in 2015, and 668 in 2014, both records. The last time you saw a year like that was in 1997 when 636 projects meeting or exceeding our thresholds were announced in the South.

As for corporate investment, some say it is declining. In fact, it is leveling off. The truth is that in Quarter 3 of 2015, a record $2.217 trillion was invested by private corporations in the U.S., according to Commerce. In Quarter 3 2016, that investment fell to $2.19 trillion, which is not far off the record set last year. So, corporate investment has stabilized near record totals.

In 1979, Linda King said working as a roof bolter’s helper at the Bullitt Mine in Big Stone Gap, Va., was more challenging and better paying than her previous job in a garment factory. Photograph by Kenneth Murray

Furthermore, in 2015, the largest 100 projects in the South had a total investment of $90.5 billion, easily breaking the then 23-year record set in 2014 of $78.2 billion. My question is, how can business investment be off when billions are being spent on new and expanded petrochemical plants in Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere? We are in the midst of the largest build-out of chemical plants since World War II.

The hundreds of massive petrochemical plants that have expanded or been built — or are under construction now — are the result of widespread fracking that began in the U.S. in the late 2000s. On average, the cost of natural gas to run a petrochemical plant in much of the U.S. is a third of costs in Europe, and even lower compared to Asia.

Furthermore, spending by the automotive industry — the second-most investment intensive sector aside from petrochemicals — has also been remarkable over the last few years in the Midwest and South. With the exception of one, every major automotive assembly plant in the South has seen automakers spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, on expansions since the recession ended. There is no question that the petrochemical and automotive industries led the South out of the recession.

In short, we have seen a remarkable climb out of the crater called the Great Recession, and it continues today. But, I hate to tell y’all this: The U.S. economy and the South’s economy are about to slow down, maybe noticeably, if there are pulls on the economy outside of labor. . .inflation for instance. And it’s not because of a new administration.

What is happening, without question, is that we are running out of labor, this country’s most prized economic asset. Sure, there is still some slack in the labor market, and there are millions of workers in the U.S. who can’t find a job, can’t find the right job, or are unwillingly working part-time. However, the long party of job generation of 200,000 or more each month may be over. . .and that’s not such a bad thing.


This worker, unloading pipes for the United Gas Pipe Line Co., Shreveport, La., was photographed by Robert Yarnall Richie in October 1949. Richie’s photography appears courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Before I make my case that we are running out of labor, let’s address the issue that centers on the 35 percent of workers who are not participating in the workforce, yet are eligible, according to the government. Politically, this is a hot-button issue. If you are the voting block that doesn’t think the current economy is so great, you point to the labor participation rate. There is nothing wrong with that, but the fact is, there are 5.5 million jobs in this country that are available almost on a daily basis. There are more than 1 million jobs that remain unfilled in the tech sector. The jobs are there, the takers aren’t. Why?

In addition, some claim the current 62.9 percent labor force participation rate is far and away the lowest in the nation’s history. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1970, the labor participation rate was 60.4 percent. At no time since has it ever risen above 67.1 percent.

It should also be noted that over the last year, the civilian labor force climbed nearly 2 percent, a very strong pace. That growth came from workers reentering the workforce. And the prime-age (25 to 54 years) participation rate has surged to 81.5 percent, the highest in nearly three years.

There are all kinds of reasons why people don’t seek work. Some are lazy, some are crazy, or both. Many are disabled. Some are recently retired but are still being counted as work eligible. Thousands join the military every year or go to prison and are still counted as work eligible. And millions more are currently in high school or in college and are counted as outside the labor force, or not participating.

Many don’t want to work and would rather take their legal and rightful federal assistance. If you are a single mother of four, say, and can’t find a job that pays as much as what you get from available federal programs that address poverty, who wouldn’t take what is legally available to them?

For those who get angry at that, then encourage the politicians who represent you to change the laws. But it needs to be understood that many people in that group have decided to stay home and take care of family, both young and old. If they could earn a job that pays enough to afford a sitter to take care of their loved ones, they would do it. Otherwise, they won’t.

And then there is the group that can’t pass a drug test when applying for a job. In decades past, prospective employees didn’t have to take drug tests to earn a job. Today, it’s almost mandatory because of insurance regulations.

There is a scourge of opiate and meth use in this country, with millions of people unable to pass a drug test when applying for a job. Not only that, smoking one joint while on a weekend fishing trip can actually keep you from getting a job, or, worse yet, get you fired. With several states legalizing marijuana, that should stop, but the insurance industry needs to lead that change.

It’s sad, but it is a fact that drug use is part of the reason so many people don’t participate in the workforce. According to many polls/studies, drug use in the U.S. is at an all-time high. That’s a big part of the work-eligible, participation problem. What’s the point in applying for a job, when many think, “I won’t pass the drug test?”

Worker non-participation rates will rise in years to come

A nurse in the hospital linen closet of the Pepperell Manufacturing Company in San Antonio, Texas, was photographed by Robert Yarnall Richie in 1943.

A new Labor Department study came out in the fall quarter. It highlighted projections of the labor force through 2060. The “labor force” is defined as those people who are 15 to 65 years old, either holding a job or actively seeking a job.

Today, there are about 95 million people in this country outside the labor force. The Labor Department’s study shows that segment will grow to 101 million people by 2020. The study also predicts that by 2060, those not in the labor force who are eligible for work will grow to about 140 million. In other words, the worker participation rate will grow, but not nearly as fast as the population ages out of that segment.

Of course, those figures are simply projections by the Labor Department. Depending on the quality of the economy, the worker participation rate could grow if more money can be earned in a job than would be paid by the government to a non-participating person for not working. In a smoking-hot economy, more good jobs will be available, but at the same time, more people will go ahead and retire because they can.

There are things that federal and state governments can do to help grow the worker participation rate. Reforming disability and welfare programs could raise the participation rate, but politically speaking, that’s like turning around an aircraft carrier. More jobs and better pay, which is actually occurring this year for the first time in years, will grow participation. Workers are seeing real wage gains. Because of that, more and better jobs will entice some retirees to return to the workforce. But there are other critical factors working against the labor force.

The fact of the matter is that the growth of the working age population (between 16 and 65) is slowing and slowing dramatically. Demographic math is cutting into our available workforce. For example, from the 1970s to the 1990s, the standard for job growth in this country was 150,000 jobs per month. That was the standard used by economists. Anything above 150,000 jobs created per month was a strong month and anything below 150,000 jobs created per month caused the jobless rate to go up.

But from the 1970s to the late 1990s, the working age group (16 to 65 years) was increasing on average of about 200,000 people a month nationally. That same working age population rose at just 71,000 per month over the past two years. And the Census Bureau reported in the fall quarter that the working age population will grow by an average of just 50,000 per month over the next 15 years. Shocking.

So, 20 years ago, 200,000 people became work eligible each month, but now only 71,000 per month become work eligible in this country. So, when we were averaging over 200,000 new jobs each month over the past four years, one can easily see how the unemployment rate dropped from about 10 percent during the recession to 4.6 percent today. We were creating many more jobs compared to the number of people entering the workforce.

Today, you can throw away that standard number of needing 150,000 new jobs per month in this country. To absorb the current slower growing population, we only need to create about 50,000 jobs per month to sustain a healthy economy. And in a few years, that will drop to 33,000 new jobs per month.

Officially the U.S.’s “U-3” unemployment rate is 4.6 percent, or close to full employment. Many economists, even ones at the Federal Reserve, believe that a national unemployment rate of 4.8 percent brings us to full employment. The U-3 is defined as “total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force.” However, a broader look at unemployment can be seen in the “U-6” rate. The U-6 is defined as all unemployed, plus “persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part-time for economic reasons, as a percent of the labor force.” That would include the underemployed. The U-6 rate as of this November was at 9.3 percent, above pre-recession levels. There is your slack in the labor force, meaning there are still gains to be had, albeit small ones.

How can we eke out more from the labor force that we have?

The existing slack in the labor force just happens to be the toughest group to employ. Many of the unemployed are unskilled, and leaders in economic development know that. That’s why there is a Herculean effort going on right now in Southern states, counties and cities to train workers for today’s jobs. Even in a situation where labor is in short supply, a more productive existing employee can make a big difference in the economy. Workforce training can make employees much more productive, and there are new programs all over the South that are re-creating our educational system. The four-year model that has been in place for years is being replaced somewhat by the two-year model.

One such effort can be found in Memphis where noted workforce development guru Dr. Glen Fenter heads up the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce (GMACW, or “G-MAC”). Fenter and Memphis’ approach to job training is done through a demand driven model. “There is absolutely no reason why most of our students across the country should not be graduating from new models that compress the last years of high school with the first years of college,” Fenter said. “Walking across the graduation stage with a meaningful portfolio of employer driven skills that can lead to immediate employment in areas of high demand or shortened post-secondary educational requirements, or both, is so important today.”

The Trump effect

Unveiled in November, the “Alabama Works” program will link employers looking for skilled workers with residents seeking jobs or job training.

How will the current tight labor market affect President-elect Donald Trump and his plans for the economy? If President Trump implements several of his campaign promises, like deporting millions of illegal aliens and putting a severe cap on immigration, the current tight labor market will tighten even further, if not simply vaporize altogether.

Ironically, some new manufacturing projects destined for the U.S. will choose Mexico because that country can serve our market easily and can backfill labor for decades to come. Some site selection consultants have told me that because of our aging population, the U.S. can’t compete with Mexico in backfilling labor 20 years or more out. Simply put, Mexico’s demographics are much younger than the United States’.

While Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard wrote this summer that America holds cards that are like a “royal flush” regarding its economy as a result of cheap and abundant energy, low real estate costs, the world’s best research universities and global leadership in digital technology, all of that will not keep this economy going without the labor that is necessary. We have been successful bringing manufacturing and other sectors back from China simply because it is cost-effective to do so. But China and Mexico remain two countries that can backfill labor decades longer than we can at this time.

Trump has set some big goals for the economy. He has promised to create 25 million jobs over 10 years. That’s more than double what was created under Obama, and more than in Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton’s terms. But where will that labor come from? It apparently won’t come from immigrants, and if he deports large numbers of people living in this country, we will see labor force reductions.

Trump repeated in his victory speech what he had said many times while campaigning. Mr. Trump has plans for rebuilding infrastructure, and the way he explains his plans, he means everything. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said in his victory speech. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

We agree with President Trump’s proposed investments in infrastructure improvements. Hillary Clinton also backed a big infrastructure stimulus and the idea would likely win bipartisan support if the funding is widely dispersed. But with a labor market as tight as this one, can it be done?

We wrote back in 2008 that such an infrastructure plan would be great timing, since the country was hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. Large investments in infrastructure improvements during the Great Recession would have created millions of high-paying jobs. Whether we could have afforded it or not was the question at the time.

“The opportunity that our country has to simultaneously rebuild our infrastructure, grow our economy and connect our current and future workforce to transformative educational opportunities is unprecedented in recent history, and undeniably essential to preserving our Democracy,” Fenter added. “The problem is that most of our current political policy and resulting educational practice is focused on essentially everything else but maximizing that opportunity. Hopefully, a Trump administration will recognize the need for fundamental change in these patterns.”

As for Trump’s other economic policies, there is not much he has revealed. Federal Reserve policymakers and other analysts, including Wall Street economists, were all predicting GDP growth of around 2 percent and unemployment below 5 percent for several more years. But that was based on policies of President Obama, with Hillary Clinton essentially continuing those policies. Most economists were not expecting a Trump victory.

Trump has maintained he can raise GDP growth to the 4 percent range, but has not given specifics. That being the case, those analysts have no idea how Mr. Trump expects to get that kind of white-hot growth and how he can do it during full employment, so they may as well just throw away their forecasts. We are certainly wading into uncharted waters with President-elect Trump. But that is okay. When there is a new president, there is always uncertainty.


The Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) is a partnership of regional manufacturers whose purpose is to implement career pathway education programs.

Maybe public sector jobs via a large federal infrastructure stimulus is just what we need to get a significant portion of those 95 million people not participating in the workforce to contribute to the economy. Yet, history has shown that this country has never reached 70 percent of eligible workers to participate in the workforce. Even if we reached 70 percent, that would put only 4.75 million workers back into the workforce who currently are not participating.

Again, the only way to grow the workforce in dramatic fashion is to grow the legal, permanent immigrant resident’s population, and of course, have a baby boom. Currently, the U.S. is approving about 1 million legal permanent residents a year. That is surely going to slow based on President Trump’s stated policies.

It’s likely that the days of hot labor market data of 250,000 to 300,000 monthly job gains are over. Sure, there will be some outlier months where you might see 250,000 or more jobs created. But unless we see large influxes of immigrants, the labor market will remain tight and millions of jobs will go unfilled.

Almost every economist agrees there has been a slowdown in the growth of the labor force over the last decade. Where do we go from here? Manage the economy so that the job market remains vibrant, but doesn’t overheat. Of course, an economic slowdown would free up labor, but we don’t see that at this time.

I really don’t like writing this, but I believe the labor force in this country needs to be maintained, not necessarily expanded in great numbers, for many years to come. The data shows us that the workers are simply not there. And that’s not such a bad thing. Yet, moving from 200,000 a month in new job generation to 50,000 to 75,000 a month will need some getting used to.

Top Deals – Spring 2017

The Southern Auto Corridor’s 10 Largest New and Expanded Manufacturing and Selected Non-Manufacturing Job Announcements

Announcements made in the Spring 2017 Quarter

1. Wanli Tire1,200$1,000NOrangeburg, S.C.Tires
2. BMW1,000$600ESpartanburg Co., S.C.Auto Assembly
3. General Motors850N/AEArlington, TexasSupplier Park
4. Braidy Industries500$1,300NGreenup Co., Ky.Aluminum
5. Protomet200$30NLoudon Co., Tenn.Auto Parts
6. Minth Group200$13NLewisburg, Tenn. Auto Parts
7. Carcoustics200$6NBurford, Ga.Auto Parts
8. Volkswagen200N/AEChattanooga, Tenn.Auto Assembly
9. IFA120$69NBerkeley Co., S.C.Auto Parts
10. Continental AG100$113ESeguin, TexasAuto Parts

($Inv. = Investment in millions – N=New; E=Expansion; R=Relocation)

Sources: RandleReport.com


Mexico’s auto industry is surging, but we still rule

Mexico has captured 9 of the 11 new assembly plant announcements in North America since 2010. Pictured is Volkswagen’s plant in Puebla.

Amazingly, Mexico has captured nine out of the last 11 announced new automotive assembly plants in North America since 2010. The South landed the other two. The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) estimates that light vehicle production in Mexico will top 5 million units by the end of the decade. As late as 2013, Mexico produced only 1.7 million units, and last year about 3.5 million vehicles were assembled there. But the new factories in Mexico that are not operating as of yet — including plants by BMW, Nissan/Daimler, Kia, Toyota, Ford and Audi — are expected to boost vehicle production dramatically in the next few years.

Last year, the U.S. (the Midwest and the South) produced about 12 million units. In Canada, where the automotive industry is declining, only a little more than 2 million cars were built in 2015.
According to CAR, the U.S. and the Southern Auto Corridor are not losing existing production to Mexico like some other countries. Major assembly plants announced in Mexico have come at the expense of plant closures in countries such as Germany and Japan. Yet, there is no question that the South has lost out on the economic growth of new assembly plants it would have captured had they not been built in Mexico.

The benefits of making cars in Mexico aren’t numerous. It costs about $1,200 a vehicle less overall to make an automobile in Mexico as opposed to the U.S., according to CAR. More importantly for automakers, Mexico has the export benefits of more than 40 different free trade agreements with other nations, more than double the free trade agreements the U.S. has with other countries. President Obama’s campaigns for FTAs with Europe and Asia are still pending. All the while, Mexico has tariff-free access to almost 50 percent of the global new vehicle market, by far the biggest attraction for automakers.

For automakers and suppliers, there are issues with operating in Mexico. The port system in the country is underdeveloped, and much of the steel produced in Mexico is not automotive grade, meaning about 90 percent of the steel the country uses for the production of automobiles each year is imported from the U.S.

Importing to and exporting from Mexico takes about twice as long as in the U.S., raising distribution costs roughly 40 percent higher. Also, the business costs of crime and corruption in Mexico are about 50 percent higher than in the U.S., but that has not reduced investments in the country from automakers. They simply add that cost into their budgets. Also, energy costs, specifically those tied to the cost of electricity loads at OEM and parts plants, is higher in Mexico.

There is no question that new OEM activity in Mexico the last five years has been much stronger than here in the Southern Auto Corridor. However, OEM expansions are actually more numerous here in the South than in Mexico. Since the end of the recession all but two of the 17 major assembly plants in the Southern Automotive Corridor have expanded, four facilities more than twice.

The auto parts supply chain is also much stronger in the U.S. than in Mexico. CAR estimates that vehicles produced in Mexico “may be comprised of up to 40 percent U.S. content.” Furthermore, according to Michigan-based CAR, parts makers invested $3.4 billion in the last 10 years in Mexico compared to over $44 billion invested in the U.S. during the same timeframe. In Canada, parts manufacturers invested just $580 million since 2006.

In total, from the end of the recession through 2015, the auto industry as a whole – including OEMs – invested $80.7 billion in U.S. operations compared to $25.8 billion in Mexico.