In January, President Barack Obama hosted a White House forum on in-sourcing, featuring small and large companies that have invested in the U.S. And in his State of the Union speech, Obama called for an economy "built on American manufacturing." He said the resurgence of the U.S. auto industry "should give us confidence."
A March trade group survey found expansion in 15 of 18 manufacturing industries, including autos, steel and furniture.
The president's Republican rivals, meanwhile, also have touted the value of manufacturing and talked tough about China. Mitt Romney has vowed to declare China a "currency manipulator" and impose tariff penalties. Rick Santorum, who has emphasized his blue-collar roots, proclaimed he wants to "got to war with China" to create the best business climate for America.
But predictions about a rebirth of manufacturing and muscular rhetoric about resolving trade imbalances are met with understandable skepticism.
Consider the numbers: More than 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost from 2000 to 2011, though there has been a modest recovery in recent years, There are economists who say some jobs are gone forever because of productivity and robotic gains. And U.S. multinationals eliminated more than 800,000 jobs in the U.S. while adding 2.9 million overseas from 2000 to 2009, according to federal figures.
The trade deficit with China — $295 billion last year — has cost nearly 2.8 million U.S. jobs from 2001 to 2010 and almost 70 percent have been in manufacturing, according to a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute.
The report's author, Robert Scott, found that about a third of all displaced jobs were in the computer and electronic parts industry; other areas include textiles, apparel and furniture. North Carolina's loss of nearly 108,000 jobs ranked it among the top 10 hardest-hit states.
Reshoring "is not only a drop in the bucket ... it's not making a dent in the growth of the trade deficit," says Scott. "It's a classic example of counting trees instead of focusing on the forest. You may see a few trees popping up but the forest is still falling down."
Bruce Cochrane started learning the furniture trade as a teen. He worked with his father, Theo — also known as Sonny — who ran the company with his brother, Jerry
"He always instilled in me that it was OK to take chances," Cochrane says. "He'd always say, 'If you aren't fishing, you aren't catching anything.'"
Cochrane remembered those words when trying to decide whether to take the plunge. "I actually had a dream of him telling me that and he was in his fishing gear. At that point, I said, 'Yep, I'm going to do it.'"
That decision came more than a decade after the Cochranes got out of the business. In 1997, the family sold the company to another U.S. manufacturer; the factory remained open and the workers continued to make furniture with the Cochrane name. Over the years, though, more and more work was done in China. The plant finally closed in late 2008, the building was sold and the equipment auctioned off.
Cochrane carefully developed a business plan, and by 2011, he was ready — thanks, in part, to financing from a local bank. The president turned out to be a former company worker.
Last spring, Cochrane — who has two partners — walked into the empty 300,000 square-foot factory.
He soon added family touches, among them an oil painting of his father, hung on the lobby wall. With their silver hair and Clark Kent glasses, father and son share an uncanny resemblance. His eyes mist when he mentions him. "I think about how much he would love this," he says.
Starting over, Cochrane also looked to the past, recruiting former company workers.
When he phoned the first two — both weren't working — he heard doubt in their voices.
"Both of them said, 'I don't think I can do that anymore,'" he recalls. "They had lost their confidence. It (joblessness) puts people in such despair. They think there's something wrong with them rather than the circumstances."
Karen Padgett was one of those first calls. She'd worked her way up from the shipping department to human resources manager, spending 35 years with Cochrane and its successor. When the factory closed, Padgett was adrift.
She was in her 50s, jobs were scarce and a lifetime of working with folks who'd become good friends was suddenly gone.
"It was such a loss," she says. "If you have a death in the family, you feel like you just can't pick up and go forward. That's how I felt. ... I knew I needed to work. I knew I was still vital enough to do something, but I didn't know what I would do."
Jerry Cochrane had urged her to return to school, so she enrolled in a nearby college to polish her skills.
She was just starting to scope out job prospects when Cochrane called. She knew immediately she wanted the job, but had a moment of hesitation. "Being out of work strips you of your confidence," she says. "I felt, 'Oh, gosh can I do this?' I just needed somebody to reassure me."
Cochrane described his plans to build American-made furniture. "He said, 'I really believe it's coming back and we can make some money doing this and we'll have a good time, I promise.'"
Padgett is now on the other end of the job search, fielding calls and conducting interviews. She's received about 1,400 applications for what eventually will be about 130 jobs. (Starting salaries range from $9 to $16 an hour.)
One caller had a particularly poignant story: He said he wanted to work for the company because as a boy, he'd lived down the road from the old Cochrane factory. His single mother had struggled to provide for her six kids, he said, and when times got tough, Sonny Cochrane made sure their utility bills were paid.
The man was eventually hired.