"The pendulum is swinging," says Hal Sirkin, the report's lead author. He says wages are rising 15-to-20 percent a year in China and U.S. workers are, on average, more than three times as productive
The report predicts that by 2015, these industries will likely reach a "tipping point" where the cost advantages of China will have shrunk to a point where U.S. companies may see it's to their benefit to return production or set up a new base here.
"It's still early," Sirkin says. "We don't know all this is going to happen, but companies are starting because the economics are starting to look favorable. I was surprised to see it happening as quickly as it is."
It is happening at a time when Americans — historically proud of the nation's manufacturing might — are showing frustration with the migration of those jobs to China and elsewhere. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in February found that nearly 75 percent of those surveyed favor raising taxes on businesses that move manufacturing jobs overseas.
In January, President Barack Obama hosted a White House forum on in-sourcing, featuring small and large companies that have invested in the U.S. And in his State of the Union speech, Obama called for an economy "built on American manufacturing." He said the resurgence of the U.S. auto industry "should give us confidence."
A March trade group survey found expansion in 15 of 18 manufacturing industries, including autos, steel and furniture.
The president's Republican rivals, meanwhile, also have touted the value of manufacturing and talked tough about China. Mitt Romney has vowed to declare China a "currency manipulator" and impose tariff penalties. Rick Santorum, who has emphasized his blue-collar roots, proclaimed he wants to "got to war with China" to create the best business climate for America.
But predictions about a rebirth of manufacturing and muscular rhetoric about resolving trade imbalances are met with understandable skepticism.
Consider the numbers: More than 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost from 2000 to 2011, though there has been a modest recovery in recent years, There are economists who say some jobs are gone forever because of productivity and robotic gains. And U.S. multinationals eliminated more than 800,000 jobs in the U.S. while adding 2.9 million overseas from 2000 to 2009, according to federal figures.
The trade deficit with China — $295 billion last year — has cost nearly 2.8 million U.S. jobs from 2001 to 2010 and almost 70 percent have been in manufacturing, according to a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute.
The report's author, Robert Scott, found that about a third of all displaced jobs were in the computer and electronic parts industry; other areas include textiles, apparel and furniture. North Carolina's loss of nearly 108,000 jobs ranked it among the top 10 hardest-hit states.
Reshoring "is not only a drop in the bucket ... it's not making a dent in the growth of the trade deficit," says Scott. "It's a classic example of counting trees instead of focusing on the forest. You may see a few trees popping up but the forest is still falling down."
Bruce Cochrane started learning the furniture trade as a teen. He worked with his father, Theo — also known as Sonny — who ran the company with his brother, Jerry
"He always instilled in me that it was OK to take chances," Cochrane says. "He'd always say, 'If you aren't fishing, you aren't catching anything.'"
Cochrane remembered those words when trying to decide whether to take the plunge. "I actually had a dream of him telling me that and he was in his fishing gear. At that point, I said, 'Yep, I'm going to do it.'"
That decision came more than a decade after the Cochranes got out of the business. In 1997, the family sold the company to another U.S. manufacturer; the factory remained open and the workers continued to make furniture with the Cochrane name. Over the years, though, more and more work was done in China. The plant finally closed in late 2008, the building was sold and the equipment auctioned off.