Competing for Manufacturing Jobs: Racing into the Darkness?

In case you missed it, Sunday’s New York Times had a front-page story on why the US has such a hard time competing for manufacturing jobs.  According to the article, here is a typical description of the problem as seen by Apple:

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

The US workforce just doesn’t have the “flexibility” of the large scale Chinese manufacturers like Foxconn Technology.  You can read the full story here.  (There is an interesting graphic on the iPhone manufacturing process here.)

So what does a flexible workforce look like?  In her review of the recent Steve Jobs biography in the New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern has different depiction of things at Foxconn:

According to a study reported by Bloomberg News last January, Apple ranked at the very bottom of twenty-nine global tech firms “in terms of responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” Yet walking into the Foxconn factory, where people routinely work six days a week, from early in the morning till late at night standing in enforced silence, Steve Jobs might have entered his biggest reality distortion field of all. “You go into this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” he said after being queried by reporters about working conditions there shortly after a spate of suicides. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”

Are these really the working conditions we want for America’s “flexible” workforce?  Are lower-cost gadgets really worth it?  Halpern’s review is here.

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