Rising labor costs in China may cause manufacturers to return to U.S.

Reinvestment during the next five years could usher in a ‘manufacturing renaissance’ as the U.S. becomes a low-cost country among developed nations.


Manufacturing is expected to return to America as China’s rising labor costs erase most savings from offshoring. Reinvestment during the next five years could usher in a ‘manufacturing renaissance’ as the U.S. becomes a low-cost country among developed nations, according to analysis by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Within the next five years, the United States is expected to experience a manufacturing renaissance as the wage gap with China shrinks and certain U.S. states become some of the cheapest locations for manufacturing in the developed world, according to a new analysis by BCG.

With Chinese wages rising at about 17% per year and the value of the yuan continuing to increase, the gap between U.S. and Chinese wages is narrowing rapidly. Meanwhile, flexible work rules and a host of government incentives are making many states—including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama—increasingly competitive as low-cost bases for supplying the U.S. market.

“All over China, wages are climbing at 15 to 20% a year because of the supply-and-demand imbalance for skilled labor,” said Harold L. Sirkin, a BCG senior partner. “We expect net labor costs for manufacturing in China and the U.S. to converge by around 2015. As a result of the changing economics, you’re going to see a lot more products ‘Made in the USA’ in the next five years.”

After adjustments are made to account for American workers’ relatively higher productivity, wage rates in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin are expected to be about only 30% cheaper than rates in low-cost U.S. states. And since wage rates account for 20 to 30% of a product’s total cost, manufacturing in China will be only 10 to 15% cheaper than in the U.S.—even before inventory and shipping costs are considered. After those costs are factored in, the total cost advantage will drop to single digits or be erased entirely, Sirkin said.

Products that require less labor and are churned out in modest volumes, such as household appliances and construction equipment, are most likely to shift to U.S. production. Goods that are labor-intensive and produced in high volumes, such as textiles, apparel, and TVs, will likely continue to be made overseas.

“Executives who are planning a new factory in China to make exports for sale in the U.S. should take a hard look at the total costs. They’re increasingly likely to get a good wage deal and substantial incentives in the U.S., so the cost advantage of China might not be large enough to bother—and that’s before taking into account the added expense, time, and complexity of logistics,” said Sirkin, whose most recent book, GLOBALITY: Competing with Everyone from Everywhere for Everything, deals with globalization and emerging markets.

Indeed, a number of companies, especially U.S.-based ones, are already rethinking their production locations and supply chains for goods destined to be sold in the U.S. For some, the economics have already reached a tipping point.

Caterpillar Inc., for example, announced last year the expansion of its U.S. operations with the construction of a new 600,000-sq-ft hydraulic excavator manufacturing facility in Victoria, Texas. Once fully operational, the plant is expected to employ more than 500 people and will triple the company's U.S.-based excavator capacity. “Victoria’s proximity to our supply base, access to ports and other transportation, as well as the positive business climate in Texas made this the ideal site for this project,” said Gary Stampanato, a Caterpillar vice president.

NCR Corp. announced in late 2009 that it was bringing back production of its ATMs to Columbus, Georgia, in order to decrease the time to market, increase internal collaboration, and lower operating costs. And toy manufacturer Wham-O Inc. last year returned 50 percent of its Frisbee production and its Hula Hoop production from China and Mexico to the U.S.

“Workers and unions are more willing to accept concessions to bring jobs back to the U.S.,” noted Michael Zinser, a BCG partner who leads the firm’s manufacturing work in the Americas. “Support from state and local governments can tip the balance.”

Zinser noted that executives should not make the mistake of comparing the average labor costs for production workers in China and the U.S. when making investment decisions. The costs of Chinese workers are still much cheaper, on average, than comparable U.S. workers, and some managers may assume that China is a better location. But averages can be deceiving.

“If you’re just comparing average wages in China against those in the United States, you’re looking at the problem in the wrong way,” Zinser cautioned. “Average wages don’t reflect the real decisions that companies have to make. Averages are historical and based on the country as a whole, not on where you would go today.”

“In the U.S., we have highly skilled workers in many of our lower-cost states. By contrast, in the lower-cost regions in China it’s actually very hard to find the skilled workers you need to run an effective plant,” added Douglas Hohner, another BCG partner who focuses on manufacturing.

Even as companies reduce their investment in China to make goods for sale in the U.S., it is clear that China will remain a large and important manufacturing location. First, investments to supply the huge domestic market in that nation will continue. Second, in the absence of trade barriers that prevent offshoring, Western Europe will continue to rely on China’s relatively lower labor rates since the region lacks the flexibility in wages and benefits that the U.S. enjoys.

Third, even though other low-cost countries—such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia—will benefit from companies seeking wage rates that are lower than China’s, only a portion of the demand for manufacturing will shift from China. Smaller low-cost countries simply lack the supply chain, infrastructure, and labor skills to absorb all of it, Hohner noted.

The BCG analysis is part of an ongoing study of the future of global manufacturing that the firm's Global Advantage and Operations practices are conducting.


The Boston Consulting Group (BCG)

- Edited by Gust Gianos, Plant Engineering, www.plantengineering.com

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