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Story Publication logo April 24, 2024

Years of Layoffs and Closures Were Always Personal. Reshoring Is a Start in the Other Direction.


The return of U.S. manufacturing is more like a trickle than a flood.

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Rick Barrett is shown near the SpaceX launch facility March 20, 2023, on the Gulf of Mexico about a 20 minute drive from downtown Brownsville, Texas. Image by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. United States.

For years, Journal Sentinel photographer Mark Hoffman and I had seen and covered mass layoffs and plant closures at manufacturing companies in Wisconsin. Over that time, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs and communities were devastated.

One company spokesman I called for comment said it “wasn’t anything personal,” and he couldn’t even find the plant location on a map.

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Actually, it's always very personal for anyone who lost their job, whether it was part of a large-scale layoff or one individual. Some start over with another manufacturer, often at lower pay and benefits. Some bail out of the field and never look back. Others retire early, although it wasn't what they wanted.

A couple of years ago, we noticed positive changes even as COVID temporarily shuttered remaining plants.

Companies were moving production back to the U.S. after shipping it overseas years earlier. And there were cases like Stoughton Trailers resurrecting it from devastating losses to foreign competitors.

Workers finish constructing an intermodal container chassis trailer Tuesday, April 25, 2023 at Stoughton Trailers in Stoughton, Wis. A Chinese competitor of Stoughton Trailers illegally flooded the United States with products at below-market prices, for less than what Stoughton paid for the raw materials. In 2021, Stoughton and its American peers prevailed in their trade dispute with China when the federal government cleared the way for more than 220% in import duties on Chinese-made trailers. Image by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. United States.

The recovery was more like a trickle than a flood, and the reality is that reshoring of American manufacturing will take many years, if it even pans out as a long-term trend. However, whether it's because of supply chain problems, trade wars, infrastructure spending, or just a realization that it's better to make things closer to home, reshoring has been happening.

Our reporting on this project started with Wisconsin metal foundries and continued with manufacturers of household products, electronics, boots and furniture.

With support from the Pulitzer Center and the Richard C. Longworth Media Fellowship, we went to Mexico, Honduras and Puerto Rico. The trips were relatively short, a few days each, but deeply informative.

In Mexico, we visited two Foxconn electronics plants across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas, and Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Together, they employ about 12,500 people. One of the plants, with 10,000 employees, was located only a few hundred yards from the border for easy access to the U.S. marketplace.

About 800 miles south, in Matamoros, Mexico, we visited the NovaLink manufacturing plant run by brothers Jason and Brad Wolfe, originally from Anderson, Indiana. It’s a Swiss Army knife of manufacturing that makes everything from apparel to automotive parts, often for U.S. clients.

In Choloma, Honduras, we toured textiles and apparel plants, along with a company-supported medical clinic and affordable single-family housing under construction for plant employees. In nearby San Pedro Sula, we visited the Altia Smart Center, a business technology hub with customer call centers that provided jobs for college students.

In Puerto Rico, we visited startup companies engaged in gene-cell therapy and advanced biopharmaceuticals. The island was once known as the Medicine Cabinet of America, and some say it can still claim that title, even as much of the pharmaceutical industry has moved overseas.

Photographer Mark Hoffman in Pyeongchang, South Korea, during the 2018 Olympics. Image courtesy of Mark Hoffman.

What are the takeaways from all this?

Our reporting showed that U.S. manufacturing was on the mend even if the number of jobs never returns to what it was years ago. Mexico probably stands to gain more than the United States from work coming from China. Central American countries also could benefit from the return of apparel manufacturing to the Western Hemisphere; they have a young workforce in desperate need of the jobs.

China will likely remain the factory of the world, at least for the foreseeable future, but it was encouraging to see increased competition. Bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., or at least closer to home, will definitely benefit millions of people, not all equally, but it’s a start.


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