José Rubio feels he has the best job of his life and dreams of sending a rocket to the moon. Maybe even Mars. And he is not delusional: that is what his job is about. Eight months ago he started as a welding inspector at Aerojet Rocketdyne, a company based in Chatsworth, California, that builds engines for NASA’s spacecraft.
“We are making history,” said Rubio, 49, who was born in California and identifies as Chicano.
Rubio is happy with his new job and not just because of his space dreams. Since he joined the company, he earns almost $50 an hour, about 30% more than in his previous job. “With a higher wage, everything gets better. I no longer live week to week and I can save to invest,” said Rubio, father of three.
“The company plans to hire more people, in two years we will send rockets to the moon,” Rubio said. “We are Mexicans, Salvadorans, Chileans. We are mostly Latinos in the industry.”
Like Rubio, thousands of Latino workers benefit from U.S. manufacturing momentum. The number of Latinos working in manufacturing increased by 7% between 2016 and 2022, despite overall industry employment falling by 1%, government data show. And while a Latino worker in the sector earned 42% less than a white worker in 2016, that gap narrowed to 37% in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data. The reason: better jobs.
In recent years, a strong labor market has provided advancement opportunities for people at the bottom, many of them Latinos. This combined with a manufacturing rebound that was concentrated in parts of the country with large Latino populations and created numerous jobs for them. Simultaneously, the nearshoring trend resulted in many factories moving from Asia to Mexico. This also improved the economy on the U.S. side of the border, where most workers are Latino.
Working conditions have improved in the aerospace industry, said Saúl Arias, a committee member of Local 509 of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). Arias is a heat treatment operator in an aircraft nut and bolt factory.
“The improvement is seen in the pay and the workers have a greater voice. The union has served as a bridge, the culture has changed and there is more diversity,” Arias explained. The median wage for Latino aerospace workers rose by 49% between 2016 and 2021.
One of the reasons Latinos have gained so many manufacturing jobs is geographical. A significant part of the employment growth in the sector was concentrated in Sun Belt counties with large Latino populations, such as Maricopa (Arizona), Alameda (California), Storney (Nevada), or Dallas (Texas).
There is a long-term trend towards reshoring and nearshoring, especially after the 2008 crisis, explained Adam Hersh, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). He refers to the relocation of factories from Asia to nearby countries such as Mexico or the U.S. itself. Among the causes of this shift, Hersh highlighted a convergence in labor costs due to rising wages in China and improved productivity in the U.S. The pandemic revealed the risks of concentrating production in a single country, which renewed the impetus to modify global value chains, Hersh explained.
The consequences of this change can already be seen in Laredo, Texas, the largest land port in the country. David Delgado works there. Delgado, 58, a Chicago-born son of Mexican immigrants, builds warehouses for manufacturing goods arriving from Mexico.
“It is amazing how many products cross the border,” Delgado says. “The highway is saturated with trucks.”
That shows a side effect. The manufacturing rebound not only benefits Latino workers in the sector but also those employed in related activities. Delgado has been in construction for two decades, but five years ago he saw work skyrocket. So much so that he left his job as a worker for a company, with a $40,000-a-year wage. He became a freelance supervisor on several construction sites. Now he earns more than twice as much.
“There is a huge demand, and most workers are Latinos who do not speak English. That has given me an opportunity because I handle both languages,” Delgado said. “I am constantly getting calls to hire me, but now I can choose where and when I want to work.”
This buoyant manufacturing moment may be curbed by the Federal Reserve’s policy. To combat inflation, the monetary authority raised interest rates the fastest since the late 1970s.
“If you think where the interest rate hikes are going to hit, probably in construction or manufacturing where you have to make large capital investments,” explained Elise Gould, Senior Economist at EPI. She has just released a report on low-income workers’ earnings after the pandemic, though it is not specifically focused on manufacturing.
“In recessions, even mild ones, the most disenfranchised workers have the hardest time,” Gould said.
Rubio was one of those low-income workers for years. He had his first son at 21 and dropped out of college. Rubio worked whatever he could find: in candle factories, as a mechanic, and as a cook in a restaurant. “I had no luck,” he said. That changed when he moved into manufacturing.
Now he wants the same for his youngest son. And hopes he will follow his path into the aerospace or electric cars industries. He thinks that is the future.
“My son likes nuts, he already talks about mechanics,” Rubio said. “He just turned five.”