True economic recovery requires far more gainfully employed American workers, and today’s job data is disheartening. Whatever the stock market’s bull case has been over the last several years, it hasn’t been supported by meaningful economic recovery for many Americans.
Here’s one glimmer of hope, though: makers. Granted, the shadow economy can include negative elements such as drug dealing and fewer tax collections, but it also includes regular people making things and selling to one another. One study supposes that the total shadow economy represents $2 trillion.
Many may make things out of necessity and to help scrape by. Part timers are likely finding things to do, supplementing income, saving money, and using extra hours for shadow productivity. They may also launch their creativity, entrepreneurship, and eventually create investable opportunities.
This spirit may save our economic skin.
Lacking jobs and lacking soul
August data reported 169,000 new jobs, missing expectations. The unemployment rate has dipped to 7.3% from 7.4%. Part-time jobs in retail and hospitality generally don’t pay big money, and those frequently part-time gigs made up much of the gain.
The U.S. Labor Department has revised the previously announced job gains down 74,000 for June and July. Many people have been looking for jobs and have simply given up. The labor force participation rate, which dropped to 63.2%, has fallen to its lowest level in three and a half decades.
Also, Challenger reported that August layoffs jumped: more than 50,000 jobs were cut, a 34% increase from July and a 57% increase from this time last year.
Back to the future
In my previous column, I made the case for businesses bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. as the right, responsible thing to do in a sagging American economy.
There’s another part of this “Made in America” theme, though, and what for many started out as moneymaking (or money-saving) activities could eventually hurt many of the companies that have stymied our job market, and perhaps even save the day.
Late last year, I reviewed Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson’s book “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”. Anderson points out that for all that the virtual world of “bits” transformed our economy more than a decade ago, now it’s on the cusp of yet another transformation: merging digital bits and real-world, customized production.
If you want it done right, do it yourself
Our mass-production world, with many companies focused on super cheap production to boost profitability, leaves underserved market niches.
Take the recent Lululemon Athletica inc. (NASDAQ:LULU) controversy regarding its “formula” that shirks yoga attire over a size 12. This sparked a conversation with quite a few of friends on social media about a pretty general frustration for people: the inability to find well-fitted clothes for many people, whether heavy, thin, petite, tall, and so forth; the high-production “norm” doesn’t serve many shoppers.
In some cases people actually can and do make their own custom clothes. That combines function, creativity, and a way to avoid conformity shopping, not to mention retail markups.
Platforms like Etsy and Zazzle allow handcrafters and artists to sell their jewelry, pottery, visual arts, clothing, and other creations directly to shoppers. eBay Inc (NASDAQ:EBAY)‘s PayPal has been a longtime enabler of person-to-person business transactions like these. It’s been a solid and vibrant part of the company’s business, but it’s also one been one of the most forward looking for many decades.
Dressed for three-dimensional disruption
Public companies’ innovations are understandably of far more interest to investors. Along these lines, 3-D printing can bring the maker revolution to an even larger scale.
Speaking of attire, just this morning Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) made a fascinating announcement. It unveiled the Verlan Dress, a 3-D printed article of clothing made by MakerBot, just in time for New York’s Fashion Week. In fact, MakerBot Flexible Filament will make its debut soon, and the product creates items so pliable that they can be form-fitted.
The summer acquisition of MakerBot means Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) is vying for the consumer market against rival 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD). MakerBot is also bringing 3-D scanning for desktops to make 3-D models.
One Wall Street analyst has claimed that the 3-D printing market will triple by 2018. Technologies that scale will, of course, more frequently reach consumers, and the smaller makers. This is a good example of sparking future economic upside.