Has He Kept That Promise?
By Laura Olsen
The Morning Call / Lehigh Valley
Dec 9, 2019 – Booming. Thriving. The best economy ever.
President Donald Trump loves to tout job numbers, particularly when he’s in Pennsylvania. When he returns to the state for a campaign rally Tuesday, fresh off a national jobs report showing strong gains, expect to hear a lot about the economy and manufacturing during his tenure.
“Since President Trump’s election, Pennsylvania has added 157,800 new jobs, including 2,900 manufacturing jobs,” Michael Glassner, the chief operating officer for Trump’s re-election campaign, said in a statement ahead of the rally. “President Trump is delivering on his promises.”
Democrats, however, have sketched out a much different economic picture in Pennsylvania. They point to a report showing Pennsylvania had lost the most manufacturing jobs of any state in the country — roughly 8,000 — between August 2018 and August 2019.
So who is right?
When Trump took office in January 2017, Pennsylvania had 561,200 manufacturing jobs, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly the same number as in 2009, after employment plunged amid the Great Recession. State manufacturing crept back to 570,000 jobs by late 2014, before dipping again over the next two years.
During the first two years of Trump’s term, manufacturing jobs showed gains in Pennsylvania, peaking in October 2018 at 572,500. But the trend reversed, dropping back to 561,600 in July of this year before ticking back up again to 562,800 in October.
The Trump campaign’s 2,900 figure for manufacturing jobs gained counts gains made during the months between his November victory and January, when he actually became president. Pennsylvania had 559,900 manufacturing jobs in November 2016, according to BLS figures.
Looking beyond manufacturing, overall job growth in Pennsylvania has shown a steadier upward climb during that same period, rising from 5.9 million jobs in January 2017 to nearly 6.1 million jobs in October. Unemployment in the state has fallen since 2017, hitting a record low in April at 3.8% before rising slightly to 4.2% in October.
Tariff ripple effects
One factor that has caused uncertainty for employers in manufacturing and other sectors has been the Trump administration’s escalating trade war and broad use of tariffs.
One western Pennsylvania steelmaker, NLMK, cited the 25% tariff on steel imports in telling the Sharon Herald newspaper this week that it has laid off up to 100 workers on a weekly basis and permanently eliminated another 35 salaried positions. The company said in April that it had paid $160 million in tariffs on the steel slabs it imports, and the Trump administration has rejected its requests for an exemption.
“There’s a lack of any kind of a coherent policy around trade,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
David Taylor, president & CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, acknowledges the turmoil around trade and tariffs. The Trump administration has done poorly at managing appeals for tariffs exemptions, Taylor said, and is “seeking to fight all trade battles at once rather than to prioritize the egregious.”
But he credits the Trump administration for other policies, like the tax cut law and a slew of regulatory changes that Taylor says have helped businesses and encouraged investment. He also cites Trump’s support of the Shell ethane facility in Beaver County, saying the production there will support jobs across an array of manufacturers.
“In general, our manufacturers believe the administration is committed to a pro-growth agenda,” Taylor said.
This year’s manufacturing job losses include 900 from shuttering the high-end cabinet manufacturer Wood-Mode, based in Snyder County. Former employees say there had been signs for years that the company, facing stiffer competition from cheaper, lower-quality models produced overseas, but the May closure came abruptly.
The factory has since re-opened, re-hiring a fraction of the former workforce and at lower wages. Some have returned, while others have searched for positions elsewhere.
“I can’t say it’s Trump’s fault Wood-Mode closed. We were having our issues before him,” said Michele Sanders, 41, who had worked at the company more than 20 years and eventually found a new job with the post office. “The middle class are always the ones that seem to pay for the economic crisis.”
An analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank that studies regional inequality, illustrates the deep challenge of restoring manufacturing jobs. It found that Pennsylvania’s manufacturing sector employs only two-thirds the number of people it did in 2000, estimating that it would take 35 years at recent growth rates to reach that previous level.
That’s not unlike another area where Trump promised to restore jobs: the coal industry. While the administration has tried to assist coal miners and some new mines have opened, any small upticks have been largely overshadowed by competition from natural gas amid the fracking boom and less international demand for coal.
In the Valley
Manufacturing remains a sizable portion of the Lehigh Valley’s economic base, accounting for 18.4 percent of the $40.1 billion gross domestic product.
The Economic Innovation Group analysis found Lehigh County was the northeastern county with the third-highest manufacturing job gains from December 2016 to December 2018, a period in which the county added 1,925 positions. (Montgomery County was second, with 1,960 additional manufacturing jobs.)
In an interview shortly after he moderated an event with local manufacturers, Tony Iannelli, president and CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the Valley’s affordability and proximity to major metropolitan markets have made it an attractive place for manufacturers and other employers.
The No. 1 thing he hears, Iannelli said, is that employers are trying to find more people, amid the low unemployment rate.
The bottom line
So, who is right?
The data reflect both claims: manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania have shown a net increase since Trump took office. But those early gains were large enough that it’s also accurate for Democrats to point out that the trend then reversed for a decrease of 8,500 jobs between August 2018 and August 2019.
Laura covers D.C. politics and policy for The Morning Call. She joined the paper after writing about state government in California and covering the Pennsylvania statehouse for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Capitolwire.com.