Over the years, most people and businesses realized that they could make better use of their time and resources by concentrating on one particular kind of work, rather than trying to produce for themselves all the items they want to consume. Most people now work in jobs where they do one kind of work; they are carpenters, bankers, cooks, mechanics, and so forth. Likewise, most businesses produce only certain kinds of goods or services, such as cars, tacos, or gardening services. This feature of production is known as specialization. A high degree of specialization is a key part of the economic system in the United States and all other industrialized economies. When businesses specialize, they focus on providing a particular product or type of product. For instance, some large companies produce only automobiles and trucks, or even special parts of cars and trucks, such as tires.
At almost all businesses, when goods and services are produced, labor is divided among workers, with different employees responsible for completing different tasks. This is known as division of labor. For example, the individual parts of cars and televisions are made by many different workers and then put together in an assembly line. Other well-known examples of this specialization and division of labor are seen in the production of computers and electrical appliances. But even kitchens in large restaurants have different chefs for different items, and professional workers such as doctors and dentists have also become more specialized during the past century.
Advantages of Specialization
By specializing in what they produce, workers become more expert at a particular part of the production process. As a result, they become more efficient in these jobs, which lowers the costs of production. Specialization also makes it possible to develop tools and machines that help workers do highly specialized tasks. Carpenters use many tools that plumbers and painters do not. Commercial bakeries have much larger ovens and mixers than those used by people who only bake bread and pies once a year. And unlike a household kitchen, a commercial bakery has machines to slice and package bread. All of these tools and machines help workers and businesses produce more efficiently, and lower the cost of producing goods and services.
The advantages of specialization have led to the creation of many very large production facilities in the United States and other industrialized nations. This trend is especially prevalent in the manufacturing sector. For example, many automobile factories produce thousands of cars each day, and some shipyards employ more than 10,000 workers. One open-pit mine in the western United States has dug a crater so large that it can be seen from space.
When the market for a product is very large, and a company can sell enough goods or services in that market to support a very large production facility, it will often choose to produce on a large scale to take advantage of specialization and division of labor. As long as producing more in larger facilities lowers the average costs of production, the producer enjoys what are known as economies of scale.
But bigger is not always better, and eventually almost all producers encounter diseconomies of scale in which larger plants or production sites become less efficient and more costly to operate. Usually that happens because monitoring and managing increasingly larger production facilities becomes more difficult. That is why most large manufacturers have more than one factory to make their products, instead of one massive facility where they make everything they produce. In recent years, many steel companies have found it more efficient to build and operate smaller steel mills than they once operated.
Specialization and International Trade
Over the past few decades, international trade has led to greater specialization and competition among producers in the United States and throughout the world. By selling worldwide, companies in the United States and in other countries can reach many more customers. Specialization is ultimately limited by the size of the market for a good or service. In other words, larger markets always allow for greater levels of specialization. For example, in small towns with few customers to serve, there is often only one clothing store that carries a small selection of many different kinds of clothing. In large cities with a million or more potential customers, there are much larger clothing stores with many more choices of items and styles, and even some stores that sell only hats, gloves, or some other particular kind of clothing.
International trade is a dramatic way of expanding the size of a firms market. In markets where transportation costs are low compared with the selling price of a product, it has become possible for producers to compete globally to take full advantage of highly specialized production. But international trade also means that businesses must compete more efficiently against firms from all around the world. That competition also makes them try to take advantage of greater specialization and the division of labor.
In many cases, products are produced and sold by firms from two or more countries that have large production and employment levels in the same industry. Often, however, these firms still specialize in the kinds of products they produce. For example, though many small cars and small pickup trucks are made in Japan and sent to the United States, large pickups and four-wheel drive sport utility vehicles are often exported from the United States to Japan and other nations. Similarly, the United States exports large commercial passenger jets to most countries, but imports many small jets from Canada, Brazil, and other nations. While this may seem strange at first glance, it allows greater specialization in production for particular kinds of products.
Transportation costs can also help to explain the pattern of international production and trade. It often makes sense to produce goods close to the markets where they will be sold, or close to where the resources used in the production process are found or made. In recent years, the availability of a skilled and hard-working labor force has become more important to producers in many different industries, so new factories are often located in areas with large numbers of well-trained workers and good schools that provide a future supply of well-educated workers.
Production Patterns: Past, Present, and Future
Several dramatic changes in production patterns occurred in the United States during the 20th century. First, most employment shifted from farming in rural areas to industrial jobs in cities and suburbs. Then, during the second half of the century, production and employment patterns changed again as a result of technological advances, increased levels of world trade, and a rapid increase in the demand for services.
Technological changes in the transportation, communications, and computer industries created entirely new kinds of jobs and businesses, and altered the kinds of skills workers were expected to have in many others. World trade led to increased specialization and competition, as businesses adapted to meet the demands of international competition.
Perhaps the greatest change in the U.S. economy came with the nations growing prosperity in the years following World War II (1939-1945). This prosperity resulted in a population with more money to spend on services and leisure activities. More people began dining out at restaurants, taking vacations to far-off locations, and going to movies and other forms of entertainment. As family incomes increased, a wealthier population became more willing to pay others for services.
As a result of these developments, the closing decades of the 20th century saw a dramatic increase in service industries in the United States. In 1940 about 33 percent of U.S. employees worked in manufacturing, and about 49 percent worked in service-producing industries. By the late 1990s, only 26 percent worked in goods-producing industries, and 74 percent worked in service-producing industries. This change was driven by powerful market forces, including technological change and increased levels of world trade, competition, and income.
Some observers worried that this growth of employment in service-producing industries would result in declining living standards for most U.S. workers, but in fact most of this growth has occurred in industries where job skill requirements and wages have risen or at least remained high. That is less surprising when you consider that this employment includes business and repair services, entertainment and recreation occupations, and professional and related services (including health care, education, and legal services). United States consumers and families are, on average, financially better off today than they were 50 or 100 years ago, and they have more leisure time, which is one of the reasons why the demand for services has increased so rapidly.
During the 20th century, businesses and their workers had to adjust to many changes in the kinds of goods and services people demanded. These changes naturally led to changes in where jobs we