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The Percentage of America’s Nonfarm Civilian Workforce Employed in Manufacturing Jobs

Here’s a letter to my long-time, hostile, “proud Trump man” correspondent, Nolan McKinney. (You can enlarge the graph by clicking on it. You’ll be taken to a new page; click on it again at that new page.)

Mr. McKinney:

You write:

Working Americans are sick of globalists telling them they’re doing ok.  Working Americans first hand experienced the terrible shocks done to them when Nafta, China and other so called ‘free trade’ agreements and chronic trade deficits robbed them of manufacturing jobs.  The market fundamentalism of the prior 50 years or so robbed us of good factory jobs which decent people could once count on.

You know the popular (and populist) narrative well. What you don’t know well are the facts.

Just below is a graph of the percentage of America’s non-farm labor force employed in manufacturing; it runs from January 1939 to April 2024. (This graph is constructed from data from the St. Louis Fed.) The percentage of American workers employed in manufacturing peaked in January 1944, more than 80 years ago. It then fell dramatically when WWII ended, and from that time until the end of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 it fell steadily. Contrary to your belief, there was no acceleration of this downward trend when America began, in 1976, its current unbroken string of annual trade deficits. Nor did any such acceleration occur in 1994 when NAFTA took effect, or in 2001 when China joined the WTO. Starting only in late 2009 did this downward slow significantly, although it has not stopped – and Pres. Trump’s and Biden’s tariffs have had no evident impact on this downward trend.

The data contradict your claim.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

I constructed this graph by dividing “All Employees, Manufacturing (MANEMP)” by “All Employees, Total Nonfarm (PAYEMS).”