Finally, Globalization May Help American Workers

A booming energy sector could help reverse the outflow of jobs to cheaper countries.

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It's a stunning thought: The United States, long dependent on foreign oil, may actually achieve energy independence over the next two decades. And by 2030 it could become a net exporter of oil.

That's the conclusion of a new report by the International Energy Agency, which touts recent energy developments in the United States as a "profound" change that will remake world markets for fuel and other goods. "The global energy map … is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States," the IEA declares. By 2020 or so, the United States may even produce more oil than Saudi Arabia.

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That intriguing possibility has generated most of the headlines, but the IEA report draws attention to another trend that's just as important: A possible reversal of globalization trends that until now have mostly caused a net outflow of jobs from the United States to lower-cost nations, such as China and India.

The loss of American jobs caused by globalization is a familiar, if controversial, story. The Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that favors labor groups, estimates that 2.8 million U.S. jobs have migrated to China since 2001, most of them in manufacturing. Other research suggests that the number of lost jobs is lower, while pointing out that globalization has also helped lower the prices Americans pay for many everyday goods. Whatever the number of lost jobs, it's clear that offshoring has had a major impact on the U.S. labor market. In a few cases, entire industries, such as textiles and toys, have relocated to foreign countries.

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Some economists have been predicting a second phase of globalization, in which foreign labor costs rise and it becomes more cost-effective to produce things in developed nations such as the United States. And now, the booming U.S. energy sector may give that trend a boost.

The IEA report points out that abundant energy in the United States will have at least two secondary effects: It will make the U.S. an energy supplier to the rest of the world. And it will lower costs for U.S. manufacturers, since energy is a key input for factories who run assembly lines.

Energy is already a growing industry that supports perhaps 10 million U.S. jobs, and while the growth of some fields, such as green energy, may sometimes be overstated, it's clear that energy jobs tend to be high-paying ones that can help replace some of the blue-collar jobs that have been lost. The U.S. now stands to export natural gas, coal, and—if you believe the IEA report—oil to nations in Europe and Asia that aren't as well-endowed with natural resources. Exporting coal in particular could help revive an industry that's otherwise declining, since coal is a dirtier fuel that doesn't always comply with U.S. environmental rules. Other nations can't afford to be quite so picky, and they'd welcome cheap American coal.

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Lower energy costs will also be a growing competitive advantage for U.S. manufacturers. Some foreign manufacturers—especially those based in Europe—already find it cheaper to build certain things in America, especially products that are sold here. If the gap in energy costs grows, it will only lure more firms across the pond.

Some economists believe a "reshoring" trend is already underway. The Boston Consulting Group predicts that a variety of factors will bring at least 700,000 new manufacturing jobs back to the United States from overseas by 2020, along with 1.8 million additional support jobs. And BCG has been revising those figures upward, with the high end of its estimate totaling nearly 5 million new jobs. A few companies, such as 3M, All-Clad and Buck Knives, have already begun to shift work back to the United States.

If the reshoring trend fully develops, it won't necessarily patch all the holes globalization has poked in the U.S. job market. New jobs won't materialize precisely where old ones were lost. They'll require different and sometimes much more advanced skills. There will be fewer union jobs. Pay and benefits might be lower than they were before.

But globalization need not be a one-way pipeline funneling jobs out of America, either. If the United States can produce more oil than Saudi Arabia, it can certainly snatch a few jobs back from China.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.