Many countries have launched industrial policy programs to improve their manufacturing competitiveness based on the idea that countries with larger trade surpluses or smaller deficits in manufacturing will have higher shares of manufacturing employment. And as countries try to generate a recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, these programs are being enlarged. But while the higher productivity in manufacturing that these programs generate may initially increase manufacturing output and expand trade surpluses in manufacturing, it will also reduce the manufacturing jobs required to manufacture those goods for domestic spending and generating the larger trade balances. As a result, the impact on employment is likely to be substantially smaller than might be expected. Improved productivity implies that goods can be manufactured more cheaply using fewer workers, so unless there is high enough demand at home and abroad for the lower-priced or new products that productivity growth generates, any additional jobs created could be substantially lower than might be expected.
This is not just a theoretical possibility. Using data from a sample of 60 countries, this paper shows that between 1995 and 2011, on average countries with trade surpluses in manufacturing experienced declines in manufacturing employment shares that were slightly larger than the declines in countries with manufacturing trade deficits. Additionally, the declines in manufacturing employment shares were as large in countries where the manufacturing trade balance moved in a positive direction as in those where it declined. This suggests that even if industrial policies generate larger trade surpluses in manufacturing, they may not succeed in reversing the trend declines in manufacturing employment shares that have persisted in many countries for several decades.
The data underlying this analysis are available here.