WASHINGTON -- In his State of the Union address, President Obama pointed to a resurgence of the nation's industrial sector as a prime example of the successes of the last few years and the economic promise of America.
He praised "a manufacturing sector that's adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s," hitting on a favorite Democratic theme, blue-collar America.
It's true that factory payrolls, after a long and steep decline, have grown again -- by about 570,000 since early 2010 as manufacturing led the recovery in jobs coming out of the Great Recession. What the president didn't mention, however, is that job growth at factories has slowed sharply in the last three years -- from 207,000 in 2011, to 154,000 in 2012, to just 77,000 last year, according to the Labor Department.
There are signs that the pace of hiring in manufacturing may pick up this year as the U.S. economy is poised to grow faster and demand for American goods picks up from a recovering Europe.
Moreover, sharply rising wages in China and cheaper energy costs in the U.S. have raised hopes that more U.S. companies will bring back manufacturing work and jobs to America -- a prospect that Obama specifically mentioned in his speech Tuesday.
"Over half of big manufacturers say they're thinking of insourcing jobs from abroad," the president said. He added: "And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s No. 1 place to invest; America is."
Obama wants to add to the momentum by boosting trade and launching half a dozen high-tech manufacturing hubs at home this year, similar to two that have opened already, in Youngstown, Ohio, and Raleigh, N.C.
Even so, experts don't see a big burst of new jobs in store for U.S. manufacturing. Advanced technologies have automated many functions, and plant managers say they can't find enough skilled workers to fill openings.
It took four years to recover one-fourth of the more than 2 million factory jobs lost in the recession. Recouping the rest will be a very tall order.