Which country is the largest manufacturer in the world? China? Nope. Germany? Guess again. The United States of America? Bingo.

If you asked this question out on the street, not many would get it right.

But there seems to be a growing awareness of this issue once again, and that in itself is encouraging.

To me, this is a key point of the manufacturing issue: Many people don’t even think that manufacturing is large enough part of the economy to be worth saving.

I remember congressional visits in recent years as part of the WMMA Public Policy Committee in which we informed congressional staffers about the number of jobs created by wood products manufacturing in their district. They always seemed surprised to learn about the existence of these companies, as if we were informing them for the first time that beet farming was a major economic force in their district.

I’ve written about identifying the sources of all the furniture I owned, and the last major furniture purchase I made when I bought a sofa and love seat a few years ago. At that time, few seemed to care where they were made – buyers or sellers.

A clear view of manufacturing 

In a column “U.S. Manufacturing….Pain and Promise,” Jeff Thredgold, www.thredgold.com, offered many interesting observations and facts that most people don’t know, including that the “common wisdom” from the national media is that the American economy has lost its ability to make things. Thredgold does a good job in explaining economic issues in clear, easy-to-understand terms.

As he points out, U.S. manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 at 19.6 million people, and that number has consistently fallen, to 11.6 million now (It has risen slightly in 2010-11). Some jobs have left for lower wage countries, but many positions have been eliminated by gains in worker productivity, which has tripled since 1980. And the U.S. continues to lead China, Japan and Germany in global manufacturing output by a wide margin.

Many big-name U.S. manufacturers have moved production back to the U.S. because of rising costs, low quality products, the theft of intellectual property, and the marketing of almost identical products by, for example, Chinese companies.

Thredgold also writes that even with millions of jobs leaving the country, some 90 percent of manufacturers report difficulty in finding skilled production workers. And he points out that there needs to be greater cooperation between universities, community colleges and high schools to provide quality training for local manufacturers.

Made for TV: Made in U.S.A. 

In one of the most visible looks at this issue recently, ABC-TV asked whether an American family could live with only made-in-America products. The Usry family of Dallas agreed to have all of the non-American products removed from their home. (Almost predictably, the house was quickly emptied.) To see more about this story, go to http://abcnews.go.com/US/MadeInAmerica see the television story, or http://abcn.ws/heUMS2.

For updates on the program see ABCNews.com/WN/MadeinAmerica., including interviews with Vaughan-Bassett Furniture and Harden Furniture.
Speaking of TV, Menards, a Midwestern chain of home centers based in Eau Claire, Wis., has put together a “Made in U.S.A. sale” in 2011, spotlighting stateside manufacturers such as Quality One Woodwork in Hastings, Minn., and featuring them in television ads.

In my opinion, a first step in manufacturing’s revival is a recognition of its importance in our economy.

If people know how important manufacturing is, they will be more likely to support policies that encourage its growth and development.

Does your community know about your contribution to the local economy?

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.