The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 9, 2017

Only data can tell us if jobs are “coming back”

With the Trump administration’s pledge to bring back jobs, particularly in the manufacturing and coal mining industries, interest in jobs is even higher than usual. 

To see if new policies and programs are working, we need data. What’s the unemployment rate? Is employment growing? Is the nation losing jobs? Did jobs come back, and where? Without data, we can’t answer these important questions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the federal agency that reports employment and unemployment every month, tracks the labor market and job growth and projects what the future demand for jobs will be. The bureau is an independent, nonpolitical statistical agency and produces accurate, uncompromised data, despite recent claims to the contrary. Its data will play a key role in assessing whether the country has made progress toward expanding employment in mining and manufacturing, both of which have experienced downward trends for several decades.

What BLS data tell us about manufacturing jobs

According to BLS data, manufacturing employment has been steadily declining in the United States since it peaked in 1979 at 19.6 million. During the Great Recession from December 2007 through June 2009, manufacturing employment dropped by over 2 million

Since the end of the recession, manufacturing employment has increased in each of the past seven years, although the total jobs in that sector have not yet reached the prerecession level. The 12.3 million people working in manufacturing jobs in January 2017 is certainly lower than the peak in 1979.  

Consistent with the long-term downward trend, BLS projects manufacturing employment will be fairly flat from 2014 to 2024, with a modest decline of less than 1 percent. Eleven of the industry groups BLS expects will decline the most in the next 10 years are in the manufacturing sector, including apparel, plastics, textiles, computers, aerospace, and automobile parts.

What BLS data tell us about mining jobs

Mining and extraction employment fluctuates more than manufacturing, responding to changes in energy prices, general economic conditions, and global demand; even during the early months of the recession, employment sometimes increased.

The long-term trend in oil and gas has been generally up at least since the 1960s. But the long-term trend in coal mining employment has been generally down since 1981, from about 200,000 to about 50,000 in January 2017.

Like their projections for manufacturing, BLS expects mining employment will also be fairly flat in the next decade, with a modest increase of less than 1 percent.

Trends can change, but without data, we won’t know

The latest BLS projections were developed before the Trump administration took office, so future trends could be affected by their policies. If new policies are successful, the actual number of jobs in manufacturing and mining over the next decade will be higher than the BLS projections (developed in 2015) suggest, but we won’t know unless we’re collecting and analyzing data.

The BLS, with its data and regular reports, is the nation’s critical independent source of statistics for tracking employment changes. In the coming decade, the data will reveal whether the trends over the past seven years, particularly the small but positive growth in manufacturing, will continue and whether jobs in mining and manufacturing will go back to the higher levels of earlier times. 

Factory worker Pat Derocher uses a die cutting machine to cut patterns to sewn together as Bean boots at the LL Bean factory in Brunswick, ME on May 26, 2015. Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.