At first blush, average manufacturing wages compared with the statewide average for all workers appears to be pretty steady over time — manufacturing workers earn roughly a 30% premium relative to the average worker. However this result is entirely driven by strong wage gains in computer and electronic product (2014 average wage $123,000). Looking at manufacturing wages excluding such high-tech producers, they have essentially converged to the statewide average. Now, wages have not fallen in nominal terms, but have grown less slowly over time than both inflation and wage gains in the average industry. Thus real manufacturing wages, and relative manufacturing wages have eroded.
The key premise of the articles linked above is that new manufacturing jobs today are no longer a clear path to the middle class like they were a generation or two ago. They pay OK but not great. While the Oregon numbers — on average — suggest solid pay for manufacturing workers, similar trends are clearly evident in the bigger and longer term picture. We noticed this in our job polarization work in recent years. However the first place it was really evident was in our historical look at wood products in Oregon, where the industry has seen both large levels of job losses in the past 30+ years and real wage declines for the remaining jobs.
So what is going on here? It’s a complicated issue but at least part of the answer does lie in the globalization and technological change/automation trends, and then how this impacts workers’ bargaining power (in general, not just with respect to unions) and the like. As we wrote in that wood products article: