Lansing and General Motors

Good news! General Motors is expanding its manufacturing presence in metro Lansing. As the Lansing State Journal reports: “General Motors Co. will bring more jobs to Lansing with plans to build a $162 million stamping plant here, the latest investment the carmaker is pumping into its mid-Michigan factories. Local economic development officials Thursday said the Detroit automaker plans to build the 225,000-square-foot stamping facility near its Lansing Grand River assembly plant, which makes the Cadillac ATS and CTS luxury cars. It would create 65 jobs.”

The new stamping plant will join another GM stamping plant and two assembly plants in the region. Lansing is among the national leaders in auto manufacturing. So the region becomes a good test case for whether being a manufacturing center is still a path to prosperity.

It clearly was the case in the 20th Century, particularly in Michigan. Michigan was one of the most prosperous places on the planet last century largely because we were where high-paid factory work was concentrated. Those workers were the core of America’s mass middle class.

But that is no longer the case. Why? Lets start with the new stamping plant announcement.  Big investment in capital ($162 million) but few jobs (65). Manufacturing is increasingly a capital, not labor, intensive activity. Manufacturing is now primarily done by machines, not humans. Add to that, as we explored in a recent post, auto manufacturing jobs are no longer high paid work.

Today, and almost certainly more so in the future, good-paying job growth is coming in the American economy in knowledge-based work. This trend holds true in the auto industry. Ford recently announced its largest capital investments in decades. Of the 5,000 new job that go with those investments, 3,300 are in salaried positions. As Crain’s Detroit Business reported:  “More than 80 percent of the new salaried jobs will be technical professionals who work in product development, manufacturing, quality and IT, a company statement said.”

Metro Lansing has been and continues to be a successful auto manufacturing center. But the results in terms of regional prosperity is very different today than in past. In 1970 metro Lansing had a per capita income one percent above the nation’s. In 1990 it had fallen to 10 percent below the nation. In 2000 it had fallen to 12 percent below. And in 2012 it is 17 percent below the nation. Clearly the 65 new stamping plant jobs won’t change that trend.

Contrast metro Lansing with metro Madison, Wisconsin. Also a state capital and home to a major research university. It historically has been more prosperous than metro Lansing. But what is stark is how much better it has done since the turn of the century. In 2000 it had a per capita income nine percent about the nation’s (compared to metro Lansing at 12 below). Today it is 35 percent above the national average (metro Lansing have fallen further to 17 percent below.) Per capita income in Madison since 2000 has risen about $15,000 compared to about $12,000 nationally and nearly $9,000 in Lansing.

The reason for Madison’s superior performance is its economy is a leader (particularly for a smaller metropolitan area) in the growing knowledge-based economy. Its knowledge-based concentration leads to far greater prosperity than metro Lansing’s auto factory concentration.

This is the lesson metro Lansing and the state of Michigan need to learn. Of course, Michigan should continue to seek to be a global center of auto manufacturing. But the economic development priority for the region and state, if we want to be prosperous, is in the knowledge-based economy,  including the knowledge-based portions of the auto industry.

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