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China's Graduates Could Collar U.S. Jobs

(2012-08-03 22:43:41)
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The arrival of hundreds of millions of cheap, diligent Chinese workers in the global economy saw America trade blue collar jobs for low cost t-shirts and toasters.

From 2000, the year before China entered the World Trade Organization, to 2011, the U.S. manufacturing sector shed 5.4 million jobs.

Demographic changes mean that China's labor force has already hit a plateau in size and will soon start to shrink. Manufacturing wages rose 20.1% in 2011, outstripping improvements in labor productivity. The price of U.S. imports from China has started to rise. That crimps the spending power of U.S. consumers, and fuels inflationary pressure.

Rising wages are also eating into margins, reducing opportunities for U.S. investors to tap easy profits. Morgan Stanley analysts estimate Chinese exporters' profit margins have shrunk 20% to 30% since 2004. The real number could be even higher. Net margins for Hon Hai Precision Industry, producer of the iPad, fell to 2.4% in 2011 from 5.5% in 2004.

Compounding the woes of white collar America, millions of cheap and diligent Chinese graduates will be jostling for a position in the global labor market. China is producing 6 million graduates a year, and is expected to have 200 million by 2030 according to estimates from the World Bank.

A massive increase in the global supply of high skilled workers in the years ahead could have the same impact as the surge in low skilled workers more than a decade earlier -- denting employment and wage growth in the U.S.

None of this is immediate and not all of it is inevitable. Despite a 46% increase in manufacturing wages in China since 2008, the cost of U.S. imports has only risen 2.6% - reflecting firms' capacity to improve productivity and swallow smaller margins. Language and cultural barriers mean China's professional workers will not put a ding in the global workforce as easily as their factory worker parents did. Rising incomes in China should also boost U.S. exports.

Still, such a profound shift in the labor market of the world's most populous country will not leave U.S. workers unaffected. In the first stage of China's development, America's blue collar workers lost their shirt. In the next stage, America's white collar could start to look a little grubby.

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