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* U.S. manufacturing: Big promises, small gains
* Factory jobs have increased but are below 1990s peak
* Economists say "reshoring" adds few U.S. jobs
* China's losses are Mexico's gains
By Joseph White, Howard Schneider and Nick Carey
DETROIT, May 11 (Reuters) - Nike Inc's announcement that it could create up to 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the United States will spark further debate on whether the country is starting to see an industrial renaissance after many years of job losses.
Evidence from government and private data suggests it is too early for U.S. workers, or politicians, to celebrate. Any boost in U.S. manufacturing appears so far to be, at best, modest and fragile.
The athletic shoemaker Nike on Friday joined Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Apple Inc, General Electric Co and Ford Motor Co among U.S. businesses promising to invest in manufacturing jobs in the United States.
There were 12.3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs in April, up 1.5 percent from a year earlier but well below 1990, when there were almost 18 million jobs, the government reported Friday.
How best to expand manufacturing employment will be a prominent question in the 2016 election cycle, especially in Midwestern states such as Ohio and Michigan. But economists and analysts say that excitement over "reshoring," or shifting jobs back to the United States from overseas, is overdone.
"Instead of hundreds of jobs at a time, manufacturers are hiring five or 10 people at a time," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.
Other measures of manufacturing activity suggest that U.S. companies are relying on more imported parts for goods they produce.
The share of U.S. intermediate goods imported from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe grew from about 2 percent in the late 1990s to almost 5 percent in 2011, only dipping briefly during the recession, according to an analysis published in November by University of Munich economist Dalia Marin.
There are cases that counter the trends seen in the broader measures of job creation.
Tailor Made Products Inc, which makes kitchen utensils, shifted production of spatulas, slotted spoons and other utensils to China about a decade ago. It was "highly likely" the company would have gone out of business otherwise, said chief financial officer Mike Retzer.
But the company had problems with its Chinese suppliers, from delays at the U.S. West Coast ports to contaminants in the plastics used to make them. In April, as part of Wal-Mart's reshoring effort, Tailor Made opened a new production line in its home town of Elroy, Wisconsin. The company has invested $600,000 in the new line, adding up to 10 jobs to its work force of 65 to start with. More new jobs are expected if production expands. Many of the company's other kitchen products are still made in China.
"We would love to move all of our production back here if we could." Retzer said. "But we work in an ultra-competitive environment where a penny or two on a product can make all the difference."
Michelle Gloeckler, executive vice president for U.S. manufacturing at Wal-Mart, said the retailer is on track with its plan to buy an estimated $250 billion in U.S. made goods from 2013 to 2023.
In the auto industry, which accounts for about 750,000 U.S. factory jobs, vehicle makers and their parts suppliers are shifting some production out of Asia, in part to reduce the risks posed by delays at U.S. ports or natural disasters such as the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
But Mexico is landing many of those jobs, says Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. U.S. auto industry manufacturing employment will grow to about 760,000 workers and then stay at that plateau until the next cyclical downturn, he said.
Average pay for U.S. auto workers has stagnated or fallen in recent years, McAlinden said. However, U.S. workers get paid far more than their Mexican counterparts.
"Mexican workers are cheaper than Chinese," he said. "So why not go near-shore rather than far-shore?"
In Nike's case, the company linked its promise to create U.S. jobs to relief from tariffs on imported shoes. Those levies average around 25 percent to 35 percent, depending on the materials used and the type of shoe, according to the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America.
U.S. firms paid about $400 million in tariffs in 2014 for shoes imported from countries that would be included in a Trans-Pacific trade pact, notably Vietnam, according to the trade group. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership would reduce tariffs. Nike manufactured 43 percent of its Nike brand shoes in Vietnam in the 2014 fiscal year, according to its disclosures.
Reporting by Joseph White and Jason Lange; Editing by Ted Botha and John Pickering