Union types doing their unioning stuff - credit, Library of Congress

GMB is an amalgamation of various craft and industrial unions over the decades and as such can reasonably be regarded as having a concern for the existence of jobs for people skilled in crafts and matters industrial. The rest of us should be reading their most recent report the other way around. For it’s just fantabulous that there are 600,000 – perhaps 20% – fewer manufacturing workers than there were in 2007. This means there are 600k people to work on sating some other human want or desire.

Sure, that’s pretty terrible for people who run a union for manufacturing workers but still:

Britain’s manufacturing sector has shrunk in the past decade by almost 600,000 jobs to leave fewer than 3 million workers employed in the sector.

A study by the GMB union found that every region in the UK has suffered a decline in manufacturing employment over 10 years, with London, Scotland and the north-west the worst affected.

In 2007, the UK supported 3.5m permanent and temporary manufacturing jobs – more than 12% of the all British employment – but by 2016 that had slumped to 2.9m , or 9.2% of the total, the union said.

Hmm, well, let’s think that through for a just a moment. Actually, let’s have a chart:

Ah, so the global manufacturing workforce has fallen by a percentage point of the working population over that same time period then, has it? We’re not – entirely so – dependent upon domestic policy then, are we? It’s fallen by some 2% in Germany, by 3% in China – no, it’s not purely domestic UK policy, is it?

The manufacturing sector has failed to regain the level of output seen before the financial crash in 2008. In the recession that followed, hundreds of companies went bust or moved production overseas.

And that’s actually the important bit. Here’s manufacturing output (UK) as an index. So, yes, it’s inflation adjusted:

Manufacturing output has fallen a bit – credit ONS

Manufacturing output has fallen by 3% or so. The workforce required to produce it has fallen by 20% or so (no, the 2% is percentage points of total workforce, the 20% is of the manufacturing workforce). What does that mean? That means productivity in manufacturing has been rising this past decade.

As Paul Krugman said productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it’s pretty much everything. It’s the crucial determinant of living standards, if productivity doesn’t rise then nor will lives get better, if it does they will.

Oh, and what’s the biggest whine about the performance of the British economy this past decade? Low productivity growth. And yet here we see really quite reasonable productivity growth, don’t we? Great, things are copacetic in this part of the economy then. As against the whines of the GMB.

As to the importance of this productivity growth. Manufacturing is ending up like agriculture. Something done by a small rump of the labour force, they producing all that is desired. Everyone else is off working in services producing other things that humans desire. And this is a good thing. For how can we have nurses, ballet dancers, librarians, accountants, zumba teachers and diversity advisers – everything that makes up civilisation – if everyone is still working in factories making things that can be dropped on feet?

Fewer people making the same amount of manufactures is the very thing that makes civilisation possible. That’s happening, great.

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Why yes; our first question should be whether this collapse in manufacturing jobs has resulted in a collapse of manufactured products. And you answer that: only down 3%; those potato parers are lasting longer than they used to. So roughly 600,000 Brits are no longer doing things that no longer need doing.

The only problem is that manufacturing trade unions have not downsized apace. They are still there shouting poor-mouth and lobbying for protection against imports, rather than following their former dues-payers and going out to teach Zumba instead.


And when productivity creeps up the services ladder, just as it did in agriculture and manufacturing, what then for the displaced service workers? That this will happen is almost a dead-cert given the shrill voices warning of AI and robots. Perhaps we will all then only work 15 hours a week as Keynes (I think it was him…) predicted and the rest of the week will be given over to beautiful thoughts and leisure. No Zumba for me thanks!


I can’t afford to stay alive on only 15 hours work a week!