• Hourly wages alone do not tell the complete story when deciding where to locate a manufacturing plant or supply chain.
  • Labor costs in other countries have risen sharply. In some cases, these costs have risen faster than productivity.
  • Finding and retaining qualified manufacturing workers is a key management challenge that accompanies a move overseas. 

Labor Costs - Just One Cost to Assess 

If hourly labor costs at a given point in time were the only measure of the cost of operating overseas, then the decision to go abroad would be straightforward.  The perception that labor costs are decisive helped fuel movement of U.S. manufacturing abroad in recent decades, and businesses continue to cite labor costs as a top factor driving the decision about where to locate production. Indeed, raw hourly labor costs are significantly lower in some other countries.[i]

However, this assessment of the cost of manufacturing outside the United States can be short-sighted.  The expected savings from inexpensive foreign labor can be whittled away over time in numerous and unexpected ways. Labor costs can change quickly and substantially. Labor turnover in some countries can be particularly high, which directly leads to additional spending on recruiting new workers and indirectly to wage increases in order to maintain existing staff. Labor cost savings also may be partly offset by the risks of labor unrest and increasingly restrictive labor laws.

The Impact of Rising Wages on a Company's Bottom Line 

Lower wage costs are one variable in a company's decision to manufacture or source from outside the United States. However, according to the 2011 Business Climate Survey, the number one problem was increasing salary and wage expenses. As markets steadily open up to global commerce, wages continue to improve and enhance standards of living around the world. U.S. firms are often standard-bearers in labor practices when doing business globally.

Rising wages may impact the calculus of a company's margin of profit. In labor-rich markets like China, workers' wages have been climbing at a fast clip through the 2000s.  Between 2000 and 2011, the average wage bill in China's manufacturing sector increased at a 14.2 percent annual rate, or close to six times the overall inflation rate, while average wages across all sectors soared at a 14.6 percent annual rate.[ii] In contrast, the hourly compensation of manufacturing workers in the United States increased at a 3.3-percent annual rate during the same period, or 0.8 percentage points faster than growth in consumer prices.  If these growth rates were to continue, U.S. wages by 2020 would be less than 9 times higher than Chinese wages, down dramatically from 2008 when U.S. wages were 24 times higher than wages in China. This changing calculus should give companies pause.

While China's rapid wage growth is not the norm in many other countries, manufacturing wage growth in a number of countries has easily outpaced wage growth in the United States—and may well surprise manufacturers who are not expecting such growth. Between 2000 and 2011, annualized manufacturing wage gains were, for example, 8.5 percent in Brazil, 6.4 percent in the Philippines, 7.1 percent in South Korea, 5.9 percent in Mexico, and 5.4 percent in Poland. 

Productivity Matters

Unit labor costs provide an easy gauge of the relationship between wages and productivity. Defined as the labor costs associated with producing one unit of output, unit labor costs measure "bucks for the bang”—which are directly proportional to the bang for the buck. When wages rise faster than productivity, unit labor costs climb because each bang costs a few more bucks.    

Indexed Unit Labor Costs in the Manufacturing Sector of Selected Countries, 2000-2011Line chart: Unit labor costs in the U.S. were on a declining trend from 2000 to 2011, while those of South Korea, Canada, and China increased over the decade.  Unit labor costs in Germany were little changed between 2000 and 2011.

 

Source: Economics and Statistics Administration analysis of data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, International Labor Comparisons program and National Bureau of Statistics of China.

The figure above shows how unit labor costs changed since 2000 in several countries (but does not compare costs across those countries). In the United States, unit labor costs decreased by nearly 17 percent between 2000 and 2011, meaning that productivity rose faster than labor costs. That is not the situation in many countries that are often considered as destinations for outsourcing. In the case of China, for example, the opposite occurred: wage increases have easily outpaced labor productivity growth. As a result, economy-wide unit labor costs in China have ballooned by more than 85 percent since 2000.[iii] Canada and South Korea also faced rising unit labor costs, with 21- and 9-percent gains, respectively. In Germany, unit labor costs ended the decade roughly where they started.

Let's consider what these trends can mean to an individual business. Consider the hypothetical case of ACE Hyperwidgets, Inc. which is deciding where to establish a new widget production facility. Let's assume that it costs $30 per hour to hire a widget maker in the United States and 93 percent less, or just $2 per hour, to hire a widget maker in country X.[iv]  With this stark difference, ACE Hyperwidgets, Inc. could just end its analysis here, but it would be overlooking a huge issue:  productivity differences. Production is less mechanized in country X and workers have lower educational attainment than in the United States. As a result, U.S. workers produce 20 widgets per hour, while workers in country X churn out just 5, or 75 percent fewer.[v]  Putting these data together, we see that the direct labor costs are $0.40 per widget produced in country X, or 73 percent less than in the United States. However, a continuation of trends in the United States and China since 2000 suggests that these costs can change dramatically over the next ten years. 

 United StatesCountry X Percent Difference
Year 1      
Wage ($/hour) $30.00 $2.00 -93%
Productivity (widgets/hour) 20 5 -75%
Unit Labor Cost (labor $/widget) $1.50 $0.40 -73%
Year 10      
Wage ($/hour) $41.51 $7.55 -82%
Productivity (widgets/hour) 33 12 -64%
Unit Labor Cost (labor $/widget) $1.25 $0.64 -49%

Wage increases in country X can erode these savings over time, especially when wage growth outpaces workers' productivity gains. If relative wage and productivity increases are comparable to those experienced by the United States and China since 2000, then the unit labor costs for the United States would shrink to $1.25 and country X's would rise to $0.64.

Turnover 

Productivity alone does not explain the sizeable wage increases in many countries. One oft-cited factor driving wage growth is the difficulty firms in some countries have attracting and retaining staff, especially skilled workers. This difficulty forces companies to raise wages in an effort to retain workers and reduce turnover. Furthermore, firms incur costs as they find and train new workers to replace those who have quit. For example, the human-resources consultancy Towers Watson estimated that Chinese turnover rates reached 26.3 percent in 2011, having nearly doubled since 2006. In contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that turnover in the United States was a much lower 17.9 percent in 2011. 

A recent study found that turnover affected the efficiency of plant operations in Mexico's maquiladoras (export plants in free-trade zones). According to the study, even when the costs of replacing workers are low, high turnover rates can result in considerable direct expenses for firms, as well as indirect costs in terms of reduced product quality, reduced productivity, and increased overtime costs. In this case, the increase in scheduled overtime actually led to additional turnover as workers were unable to juggle the extra factory hours with second jobs they held in the informal economy, which paid more per hour than the on-the-books overtime.

Turnover reflects just one aspect of the management burden and costs of coordination that accompany a move offshore.  These burdens increase when the firm is a small- or medium-sized enterprise with little or no overseas experience.  Lacking local contacts to oversee day-to-day operations, such firms are forced to send U.S.-based managers overseas, incurring the associated travel and opportunity costs, like time spent out of the office.  If these firms instead try to hire local managers, they may find themselves in a quandary.  Given already high turnover rates in these countries, managers, like skilled production workers, can be difficult to recruit and retain; indeed, this was the third most-cited human resource problem according to the 2011 Business Climate Survey.   

Other Labor Risk Factors 

Rising wages, lower productivity costs, and difficulty with turnover are not the only factors to consider in the labor equation.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) aggregates these and other "labor market factors... likely to disrupt business operations" into a single measure of "labor market risk." These risk indicators feed into an overall score from 0 to 100, with 100 reflecting the highest risk to business profitability. The United States posted a score of 18, the third best score of the 180 countries assessed, ranking below only Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Japan and many European countries posted scores in the 20s, including Germany (29). Vietnam—increasingly the location of choice when China is too pricey—tied with Niger for second highest score at 79. According to EIU, China and Mexico also came in relatively high in terms of labor risk, with their respective scores of 61 and 57.

Labor Market Risk Score by Country
Map:  The United States, Canada, France, and several European countries are among the areas with the lowest risk of labor market factors disrupting business operations.  Much of Africa and parts of South America and southeast Asia posted much higher risk scores.

Source: Economics and Statistics Administration analysis using data from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

 

Conclusion

Foreign hourly labor costs are but one factor to consider in the overall labor cost equation. When deciding whether it is better to manufacture outside the United States, companies should also consider rising wages, lower productivity, difficulty with turnover, and relatively high labor market risks. Looking at the entire labor cost equation demonstrates the soundness of manufacturing in the United States.

[i] These data are hourly compensation costs, which include direct pay, social insurance expenditures, and labor-related taxes.  Estimates of wages and of direct benefits, which primarily includes pay for leave time and bonuses, are available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
[ii] Year-to-year percentage change in national average money wages by sector. Data are from China's Ministry of Labor and Social Security/Haver Analytics.
[iii] Data are from China's National Bureau of Statistics/Haver Analytics.  Figures for China's manufacturing sector are not available.
[iv] "Compensation— includes wages as well as social insurance expenditures and labor-related taxes.
[v] This productivity difference is comparable to Boston Consulting Group's estimates of the relative productivity of U.S. and Chinese manufacturing workers in 2010.