David Lehman, who doesn't actually manufacture guns, offers a spirited defense of the value of the gun industry to Idaho, but his argument suffers a common malady: He doesn't supply any facts.
A total of 180 Idaho companies hold federal licenses to manufacture firearms or ammunition, but the industry produces relatively few jobs. As a reference point, 641,000 Idahoans hold jobs, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2013. To gauge employment in the gun industry, we can look at the "Small Arms Ammunition Manufacturing" industry in the state, NAICS classification 332992. Several job classifications are prominent in that industry: team assemblers; machinists; welders; cutting, punching and press machine setters; and supervisors. Certainly those categories are prominent in the manufacture of other firearms products as well.
In 2012, the Idaho Department of Labor reported that 10,750 Idahoans held jobs in those categories. With 641,000 currently working, that means about .016 percent of all Idahoans are potentially making ammo. Of course, that is not the case. Nationally, the majority of "team assemblers" work in the automotive industry.
What do these people earn? Production supervisors earn the most with a mean annual wage of $50,260. That's above the current mean annual wage in Idaho of $38,440. The news isn't so great for those on the manufacturing lines. In Idaho, even machinists earn below the mean, at $38,130. Welders earn a mean of just more than $34,000. Assemblers and press machine setters earn just over $27,000 annually. Reality is far different than the portrait painted by Mr. Lehman: "These are not simply low-paying jobs in an unskilled industry." And here is where we learn the truth of attempting, as Mr. Lehman suggests, to build an economy based on cheap wages: It doesn't work.
Between 2010 and 2012, employment among all but assemblers dropped off sharply. The state lost 150 welders, 200 machinists, and almost 200 press machine setters. Why? I posit wages, and regional competition. What Lehman fails to recognize is that labor markets are fluid for capital and labor. Just as manufacturers look for affordable places to do business, workers look for better pay. And what do we learn from looking at regional wage data?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in all five of these job categories, Idaho ranks in the bottom quintile in the U.S. Wyoming and Oregon boast among the highest pay in the U.S. for assemblers; Washington and Montana pay among the highest for press setters; Washington, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming among the best for machinists; Washington, Nevada, and Wyoming for welders; Washington, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado for supervisors.
Idaho might look enticing to employers, but certainly not to employees, which in turn makes Idaho all the less interesting to employers.
Economists evaluate decisions based not on choices made, but choices not made - opportunity costs. That is, in pursuing low-wage gun-related jobs, what are we not pursuing? One of the largest sectors of Idaho's economy is management occupations - operations managers, financial managers, and the like. These positions boast a mean annual wage approaching $80,000. These jobs are the legacy of corporate giants such as Morrison-Knudsen, Ore-Ida, Boise Cascade, Simplot, Trus-Joist and Albertsons.
The state's choice to pursue gun and ammunition manufacturers vis-á-vis higher-valued opportunities indicates how political leaders view Idaho. In recruiting gun manufacturers, state leaders are attempting to match industry with their view of the state's ideology, rather than pursuing industrial recruitment opportunities reflecting our history, legacy, actual workforce competencies, the kind of graduates the state's universities can produce, or economics. And that is the greater problem with the focus on gun jobs.
Chris Blanchard is a Ph.D. Candidate at Portland State University, where he specialized in economic development policy. He lives in Boise.