Motorola's New Smartphone: Made in the U.S.A., but Not for Much Pay

Factory workers assembling the Moto X will make as little as $9-an-hour, if the help wanted ads are to be believed.
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Today, Google-owned Motorola is officially announcing the new Moto X, an Android-powered device that, as its ads remind us, will be the first smartphone actually manufactured in the United States. Motorola is teaming with Flextronics to assemble the handsets at a former Nokia factory in Fort Worth, Texas, which will eventually employ somewhere around 2,000 workers. 

In other words, we're all finally about to see what happens when a tech company actually tries to bring production back to the U.S. of A. from low-wage Asia, much as Apple is planning to do with some of its Macs, and how much the resulting new jobs will actually pay. 

In some cases, it appears, the answer is not much. Flextronics seems to have kept mum about wages. But after a little bit of surfing around jobs boards, I was able to find some help wanted ads from a staffing company that don't leave a whole lot of questions about what factory they were headhunting for. (Here's a link to the one below.)

All_Jobs.jpg

So at the lowest wrung, we're talking Walmart wages. For better-educated technicians and production leads, we're in a more middle-class pay range. There's no mention of benefits in the ads, but I'm not going to draw any hard conclusions from that. 

None of this should be particularly shocking. The generous manufacturing wages of mid-century America are mostly a memory at this point. Even the United Auto Workers have negotiated a two-tiered wage system that start's new assembly hands at about $14 an hour, half of what their older colleagues make. Meanwhile, we are, in the end, talking about smartphone manufacturing, an industry where the vast majority of the supply chain exists in Asia, right alongside plentiful cheap labor. Chinese wages have been rising fast, but anybody looking to compete while making handsets in the U.S. is still going to need to minimize costs. 

We're also talking about Fort Worth, where the living wage for a single adult is $9.27, according to MIT's living wage calculator. I doubt that that's an accident. It makes sense that Motorola would look for a location where it wouldn't have to pay its workers highly. 

The new factory won't just lead to production jobs. Flextronics also appears to be hiring engineers, for instance. But in general, I think this is a reminder that even if the United States really is on the verge of bringing back loads of manufacturing work from overseas, as many believe, we have to temper our expectations for what that will mean. 

UPDATE 6:19 PM: In an email, a Flextronics spokeswoman confirmed that the advertised wages were indeed accurate: "Please be advised that the posted wages you inquired about are reflective of some of the positions Flextronics is hiring for in Fort Worth and are competitive market wages. Please note that Flextronics is also hiring for managerial and other positions and those job postings can be found at flextronics.com." 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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