When Barack Obama joined Silicon Valley’s top luminaries for dinner in California last February, each guest was asked to come with a question for the president.
But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke,President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?
Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
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Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.
The president’s question touched upon a central conviction at Apple. It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.
Apple has become one of the best-known, most admired and most imitated companies on earth, in part through an unrelenting mastery of global operations. Last year, it earned over $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.
However, what has vexed Mr. Obama as well as economists and policy makers is that Apple — and many of its high-technology peers — are not nearly as avid in creating American jobs as other famous companies were in their heydays.
Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas, a small fraction of the over 400,000 American workers at General Motors in the 1950s, or the hundreds of thousands at General Electric in the 1980s. Many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products. But almost none of them work in the United States. Instead, they work for foreign companies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, at factories that almost all electronics designers rely upon to build their wares.
“Apple’s an example of why it’s so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now,” said Jared Bernstein, who until last year was an economic adviser to the White House.
“If it’s the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried.”
Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhonemanufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”
Similar stories could be told about almost any electronics company — and outsourcing has also become common in hundreds of industries, including accounting, legal services, banking, auto manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.
But while Apple is far from alone, it offers a window into why the success of some prominent companies has not translated into large numbers of domestic jobs. What’s more, the company’s decisions pose broader questions about what corporate America owes Americans as the global and national economies are increasingly intertwined.
“Companies once felt an obligation to support American workers, even when it wasn’t the best financial choice,” said Betsey Stevenson, the chief economist at the Labor Department until last September. “That’s disappeared. Profits and efficiency have trumped generosity.”
Companies and other economists say that notion is naïve. Though Americans are among the most educated workers in the world, the nation has stopped training enough people in the mid-level skills that factories need, executives say.
To thrive, companies argue they need to move work where it can generate enough profits to keep paying for innovation. Doing otherwise risks losing even more American jobs over time, as evidenced by the legions of once-proud domestic manufacturers — including G.M. and others — that have shrunk as nimble competitors have emerged.
Apple was provided with extensive summaries of The New York Times’s reporting for this article, but the company, which has a reputation for secrecy, declined to comment.
This article is based on interviews with more than three dozen current and former Apple employees and contractors — many of whom requested anonymity to protect their jobs — as well as economists, manufacturing experts, international trade specialists, technology analysts, academic researchers, employees at Apple’s suppliers, competitors and corporate partners, and government officials.
Privately, Apple executives say the world is now such a changed place that it is a mistake to measure a company’s contribution simply by tallying its employees — though they note that Apple employs more workers in the United States than ever before.
They say Apple’s success has benefited the economy by empowering entrepreneurs and creating jobs at companies like cellular providers and businesses shipping Apple products. And, ultimately, they say curing unemployment is not their job.
“We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,” a current Apple executive said. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”
‘I Want a Glass Screen’
In 2007, a little over a month before the iPhone was scheduled to appear in stores, Mr. Jobs beckoned a handful of lieutenants into an office. For weeks, he had been carrying a prototype of the device in his pocket.
Mr. Jobs angrily held up his iPhone, angling it so everyone could see the dozens of tiny scratches marring its plastic screen, according to someone who attended the meeting. He then pulled his keys from his jeans.
People will carry this phone in their pocket, he said. People also carry their keys in their pocket. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he said tensely. The only solution was using unscratchable glass instead. “I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”
After one executive left that meeting, he booked a flight to Shenzhen, China. If Mr. Jobs wanted perfect, there was nowhere else to go.
For over two years, the company had been working on a project — code-named Purple 2 — that presented the same questions at every turn: how do you completely reimagine the cellphone? And how do you design it at the highest quality — with an unscratchable screen, for instance — while also ensuring that millions can be manufactured quickly and inexpensively enough to earn a significant profit?
The answers, almost every time, were found outside the United States. Though components differ between versions, all iPhones contain hundreds of parts, an estimated 90 percent of which are manufactured abroad. Advanced semiconductors have come from Germany and Taiwan, memory from Korea and Japan, display panels and circuitry from Korea and Taiwan, chipsets from Europe and rare metals from Africa and Asia. And all of it is put together in China.
In its early days, Apple usually didn’t look beyond its own backyard for manufacturing solutions. A few years after Apple began building the Macintosh in 1983, for instance, Mr. Jobs bragged that it was “a machine that is made in America.” In 1990, while Mr. Jobs was running NeXT, which was eventually bought by Apple, the executive told a reporter that “I’m as proud of the factory as I am of the computer.” As late as 2002, top Apple executives occasionally drove two hours northeast of their headquarters to visit the company’s iMac plant in Elk Grove, Calif.
But by 2004, Apple had largely turned to foreign manufacturing. Guiding that decision was Apple’s operations expert, Timothy D. Cook, who replaced Mr. Jobs as chief executive last August, six weeks before Mr. Jobs’s death. Most other American electronics companies had already gone abroad, and Apple, which at the time was struggling, felt it had to grasp every advantage.
In part, Asia was attractive because the semiskilled workers there were cheaper. But that wasn’t driving Apple. For technology companies, the cost of labor is minimal compared with the expense of buying parts and managing supply chains that bring together components and services from hundreds of companies.
For Mr. Cook, the focus on Asia “came down to two things,” said one former high-ranking Apple executive. Factories in Asia “can scale up and down faster” and “Asian supply chains have surpassed what’s in the U.S.” The result is that “we can’t compete at this point,” the executive said.
The impact of such advantages became obvious as soon as Mr. Jobs demanded glass screens in 2007.
For years, cellphone makers had avoided using glass because it required precision in cutting and grinding that was extremely difficult to achieve. Apple had already selected an American company, Corning Inc., to manufacture large panes of strengthened glass. But figuring out how to cut those panes into millions of iPhone screens required finding an empty cutting plant, hundreds of pieces of glass to use in experiments and an army of midlevel engineers. It would cost a fortune simply to prepare.
Then a bid for the work arrived from a Chinese factory.
When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.
The Chinese plant got the job.
“The entire supply chain is in China now,” said another former high-ranking Apple executive. “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.”
In Foxconn City
An eight-hour drive from that glass factory is a complex, known informally as Foxconn City, where the iPhone is assembled. To Apple executives, Foxconn City was further evidence that China could deliver workers — and diligence — that outpaced their American counterparts.
That’s because nothing like Foxconn City exists in the United States.
The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said.
Foxconn employs nearly 300 guards to direct foot traffic so workers are not crushed in doorway bottlenecks. The facility’s central kitchen cooks an average of three tons of pork and 13 tons of rice a day. While factories are spotless, the air inside nearby teahouses is hazy with the smoke and stench of cigarettes.
Foxconn Technology has dozens of facilities in Asia and Eastern Europe, and in Mexico and Brazil, and it assembles an estimated 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung and Sony.
“They could hire 3,000 people overnight,” said Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, but declined to discuss specifics of her work. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?”
In mid-2007, after a month of experimentation, Apple’s engineers finally perfected a method for cutting strengthened glass so it could be used in the iPhone’s screen. The first truckloads of cut glass arrived at Foxconn City in the dead of night, according to the former Apple executive. That’s when managers woke thousands of workers, who crawled into their uniforms — white and black shirts for men, red for women — and quickly lined up to assemble, by hand, the phones. Within three months, Apple had sold one million iPhones. Since then, Foxconn has assembled over 200 million more.
“Any worker recruited by our firm is covered by a clear contract outlining terms and conditions and by Chinese government law that protects their rights,” the company wrote. Foxconn “takes our responsibility to our employees very seriously and we work hard to give our more than one million employees a safe and positive environment.”
The company disputed some details of the former Apple executive’s account, and wrote that a midnight shift, such as the one described, was impossible “because we have strict regulations regarding the working hours of our employees based on their designated shifts, and every employee has computerized timecards that would bar them from working at any facility at a time outside of their approved shift.” The company said that all shifts began at either 7 a.m. or 7 p.m., and that employees receive at least 12 hours’ notice of any schedule changes.
Foxconn employees, in interviews, have challenged those assertions.
Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.
In China, it took 15 days.
Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.
Some aspects of the iPhone are uniquely American. The device’s software, for instance, and its innovative marketing campaigns were largely created in the United States. Apple recently built a $500 million data center in North Carolina. Crucial semiconductors inside the iPhone 4 and 4S are manufactured in an Austin, Tex., factory by Samsung, of South Korea.
But even those facilities are not enormous sources of jobs. Apple’s North Carolina center, for instance, has only 100 full-time employees. The Samsung plant has an estimated 2,400 workers.