Look at the back of your iPhone, or your iPad, or on the bottom of your Mac. You’ll see the following words embossed somewhere: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Many Americans, all the way up to the President himself, have wondered why Apple has outsourced virtually all of its manufacturing overseas. At a dinner with several top US technology executives last year, President Obama asked Steve Jobs flat out what it would take to bring those jobs back to the US. According to Jobs, there’s simply no way for it to happen.
Why not? Why can’t iPhones, iPads, and all the rest of Apple’s magic gadgets be built in the States? More generally, why can’t more US-based consumer electronics and computer companies do their manufacturing work domestically, helping to create American jobs and boost the struggling economy?
The New York Times asked that question, and after an extremely well-researched report involving interviews with both former and current executives at Apple, the answer the Times found is both simple and chilling: iPhones aren’t made in America because they just can’t be. The infrastructure and labor force doesn’t exist at the levels necessary to support Apple’s operations — it’s not even close.
The Chinese factory where most iPhones reach final assembly employs 230,000 workers. I just asked Siri how many cities in the US have a population higher than that, and the answer was a mere 83 cities — and that’s total population, not workforce. With an average labor force of around 65 percent of the population, only 50 US cities are large enough to provide that kind of labor pool… and even in the biggest US city of them all, New York, 230,000 people still amounts to almost three percent of the city’s entire population. Can you imagine three out of every hundred New Yorkers on an assembly line, cranking out iPhones every day?
Over the past couple of years, we have heard a great deal concerning working conditions at factories owned by Foxconn. The Chinese manufacturing company is responsible for assembling consumer electronics for most of the major vendors out there, including Apple. Around a fourth of those 230,000 people live in company-owned dorms or barracks right on factory property; that’s almost 60,000 people living and working at the factory. Many of the people at “Foxconn City” work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and they earn less than US$17 per day. It may sound inhumane by American standards, but these jobs are in high demand in China — so much so that Jennifer Rigoni, former worldwide supply demand manager for Apple, told the New York Times that Foxconn “could hire 3,000 people overnight.”
Those are just a couple examples of how the scale, speed, and efficiency of Chinese manufacturing outstrips anything the US is currently capable of. But the Times’ report is full of more evidence, and it’s damning. Even though the 200,000 assembly-line workers putting part A into slot B could potentially be classified as unskilled labor, the 8700 industrial engineers overseeing the process can’t be — and according to the Times, finding that many qualified engineers in the States would take nine months. Chinese manufacturers found them all in 15 days.
I’m not vouching for the accuracy of anything in the article but there is a lot to think about in it. Couple of points:
How much more would you be willing to pay for stuff to buy stuff made in America by union workers?
If we moved all the factories here, how would that affect immigration?
Imagine if a war broke out in Asia and all the major countries were involved, wiping out the manufacturing base of the whole region. Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan and India are all involved. Where would we get all our shiny toys?
What are you looking at me for? I don’t have the answers.
Filed under: Uncategorized