An American-made iPhone? Not happening
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shut down its last US manufacturing operation, and China had become the industrial hub of its global empire.
Low labor costs and minimal regulation were certainly part of China’s appeal. But the most important factor was its huge and nimble workforce. The main iPhone facility in Zhengzhou now employs 110,000 workers, with other factories employing hundreds of thousands more. China’s 270 million migrant laborers have proven indispensable to a business that prizes flexibility. Last summer, Apple contractors reportedly hired 100,000 workers to ramp up production of the iPhone 6s in advance of its fall release.
Shenzhen is home to 240,000 Foxconn employees — and millions of engineers and laborers.
Nothing comparable could ever happen in the US, no matter what the president wants. A mass mobilization on that scale, and at that speed, likely hasn’t been attempted since World War II. And there’s little reason to think it would be successful or desirable today, even if Apple were willing to try.
Finding enough skilled labor wouldn’t be much easier. Apple CEO Tim Cook told 60 Minutes last year that, thanks to better vocational education, China now has a more skillful workforce than the US. Apple’s executives estimate that they’d need 8,700 industrial engineers to oversee 200,000 assembly line workers, yet only 7,000 students completed university-level industrial-engineering programs in the US in 2014. Shenzhen, by contrast, is home to 240,000 Foxconn employees — and millions more engineers and laborers.
Such a concentration of manufacturing and skills in one place gives China its other major advantage. Most of the hundreds of parts that go into an iPhone are made a short distance from where the devices are assembled.
Those factories also can ramp up production as quickly as Apple needs. It’s an industrial ecosystem that took decades to evolve, and it’s not going to relocate to the US.
Moreover, Americans shouldn’t want it to. That ecosystem has made Apple one of the world’s most profitable companies, supporting 2 million domestic jobs. It’s what allows Americans to buy some incredible gadgets at a (relatively) affordable price. And it’s helping give rise to a vast and tech-savvy Asian middle class — which will produce plenty of customers for American goods and services. All that would disappear if Apple were somehow forced to ship production back to the US.
If Trump wants to revive manufacturing in the US, it will require more than hectoring Apple. It will mean supporting vocational education on a huge scale, offering Chinese-style industrial subsidies and waiting around for decades for all of it to have an effect — all in pursuit of tedious, lowpaid jobs that are increasingly obsolete as industrial robots improve.
A family looks at Apple products during Black Friday sales at a Best Buy store in Los Angeles.