The number of manufacturing jobs nationally recently surpassed 12 million for the first time since May 2009.
But that number falls far short of the more than 17.3 million factory jobs the country had in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. manufacturing jobs had been waning even before the Great Recession, but bottomed out at 11.4 million in early 2010.
Since then, employment in the sector has been growing, but slowly.
The country is currently not adding jobs fast enough to reach President Barack Obama's goal of creating 1 million new manufacturing jobs by 2017, according to The Alliance for American Manufacturing, a joint effort between major companies and the United Steelworkers to promote the domestic manufacturing industry. Obama gave a speech about his manufacturing initiatives Tuesday at North Carolina State University.
The United States added only 9,000 manufacturing jobs in December, making it a total of 77,000 jobs in 2013. Those jobs numbers were disappointing, and suggest the president's goal may be elusive, said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.
"Talk of a manufacturing resurgence is very premature," said Paul. "The last two years were very weak for manufacturing employment, and 2014 won't be much better unless Congress and the administration get their collective acts together. Now that the Federal Reserve has signaled a 'tapering' of its monetary stimulus, a jobs plan must be priority No. 1. That means public investment in infrastructure, research and worker training; a focus on cutting the trade deficit by passing currency reform legislation; and enacting a manufacturing plan along the lines of what Senate Democrats have proposed."
The anemic manufacturing growth has a big effect on Northwest Indiana, which may be the manufacturing-intensive region of the most manufacturing-intensive state in the country, said Micah Pollak, an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest.
Manufacturing is five times more concentrated in Indiana than in the nation as a whole, and 24 times more concentrated in Northwest Indiana than it is nationally, Pollak said.
Northwest Indiana had about 38,000 manufacturing jobs before the downturn, and was back up to about 36,000 in November. But Pollak said the job growth has been slow because much of the industry remains paralyzed with uncertainty about the future.
"Industrial firms are not willing to commit to workers, because they don't want to hire them and find out they were wrong about the direction of the economy," he said. "There's a lot of unionization and long-term contracts, so they have less flexibility than other industries. They have to feel comfortable about that the economy is going to grow."
Factories also have been able to maintain the same level of productivity with fewer workers, partly because of increased automation, Pollak said.
"Personally, I think the jobs will eventually come back," he said. "They can only squeeze out so much extra production."