The White House is showcasing goods that are "Made in America" this week in an attempt to highlight President Donald Trump's campaign pledge to restore American manufacturing.
Over the years, that idea of reinvigorating the country's industrial might has proved politically irresistible both to Republicans and Democrats. But here's the thing: Manufacturing never really left -- only the jobs did. In terms of output -- how much value it produces -- the manufacturing sector is by far the biggest contributor to the U.S. economy.
America's factories made $5.3 trillion worth of goods last year. That's nearly a third of the nation's GDP, and more than any other sector. Even the finance and real estate sector -- which swelled enough in recent decades to threaten the stability of the economy during the housing crash -- has a smaller role than manufacturing. Measured on its own, manufacturing contributes a bigger part of the nation's economic output than the six smallest sectors -- including mining, construction, transportation, and accommodation and hospitality services -- combined.
What's America's most important manufactured product in terms of overall economic value? Oil. The process of refining the petroleum that helps make the economy dwarfs the other sub-sectors in the top 10, contributing $462 billion to the economy in 2015 (the most recent year for which detailed data is available). Not surprisingly, the production of vehicles that run on gas also features highly on the list of top sectors. Pharmaceuticals and airplanes round out the list.
One of the reasons behind this impressive output is just how efficient manufacturing has gotten. Efficiency is another term for creating more with less, which in this case includes fewer workers. That's a key driver behind the well-documented decline in manufacturing employment.
In the 1970s, workers in manufacturing made up over 20 percent of the labor force. As manufacturers have gotten more efficient and the labor force has grown, that number has plateaued.
While manufacturing has a significant presence in all 50 states, the areas where manufacturing jobs are most noticed are in America's central states, away from the coasts. Manufacturing is most prominent in Wisconsin and Indiana, each having over 7,500 manufacturing jobs per 100,000 residents, with Iowa a close third. And states that that are typically more associated with agriculture, including Kansas, Nebraska and Arkansas, are just as manufacturing-dense as Ohio and Michigan.
Although big machines, like cars and airplanes, are behind the bulk of the country's manufacturing output, they're not where the job growth is. The areas that have added the most jobs over the past couple years have tended to be in smaller, niche operations, including food manufacturing. The top 10 list includes spice and extract manufacturers, breweries, and malt manufacturers (especially beer producers.) Distilleries are close behind, at no. 11.
And the fastest-growing sector? As of 2015, the fastest growth was for makers of.