The chart above shows annual real manufacturing output per worker from 1947-2011 using data released today by the BEA for manufacturing output by industry, and data from the BLS on manufacturing employment. In 1950, the average U.S. factory worker produced $19,500 (in 2011 dollars) of output, and by 1976 the amount of output per worker had doubled to $38,500. Output per worker doubled again to $74,400 (in 2011 dollars) by 1997 (21 years later) and then doubled again to $152,800 by 2010, but it only took 13 years for the last doubling because worker productivity has been accelerating. Last year, manufacturing output per worker increased to a new record high of $156,500 (see chart), and almost ten times the output per worker in 1947.
In other words, the average American factory worker today produces more output in an hour than his or her counterpart produced working almost a ten hour day in 1947 - and that's why we're producing record levels of output with fewer workers.
This is an amazing story of huge increases in U.S. worker productivity in the manufacturing sector. In fact, the growth in manufacturing worker productivity more than doubled from 2.63% per year in the period between 1950 and mid-1970s to 5.42% annually between 1997 and 2011. Whereas it took 26 years for output per worker to double during the first period (1950-1976), it only took 13 years during the more recent period (1997-2010).
We are constantly inundated with bad news about the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., but we never hear the good news about why that is happening: Manufacturing workers in America keep getting more and more productive, which then allows us to produce more and more output over time, with fewer and fewer workers. That's a great story about an American industry that is healthy, successful and thriving, and not an industry in decline.
By continually increasing worker productivity and productive efficiency, the American manufacturing sector has been hugely successful at achieving one of the most important economic outcomes of being able to "produce more with less." In the process, those efficiency and productivity gains have helped conserve scarce resources, including human resources, more effectively than almost any other industry, except maybe farming. It's hard to overstate how much the efficiency gains achieved by U.S. manufacturing have contributed to the improvements in our standard of living by making manufactured goods more affordable over time. We should spend less time complaining about fewer workers in manufacturing, and more time celebrating the phenomenal gains in manufacturing worker productivity.