By DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporter

For the first time since losing the title to Chicago four years ago, Los Angeles has once again captured the crown as the nation's No. 1 manufacturing center.

Los Angeles County had an average of 663,400 manufacturing jobs last year an increase of 2.9 percent from 1996, according to revised 1997 data released last week by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

L.A. now has 5,900 more manufacturing jobs than the Chicago metropolitan area.

"I am impressed by the fact that manufacturing is growing here despite the barriers that other locations might not have," said Tom Lieser, executive director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast, which follows the L.A. area economy.

Those barriers, Lieser said, include strict air quality standards and expensive real estate in the Los Angeles region.

While Lieser and others said that the return of manufacturing job growth was encouraging news for the region, they were quick to point out that the aerospace jobs L.A. lost earlier this decade are being replaced by lower-paying jobs in manufacturing sectors like apparel and furniture-making.

"One of the problems is that a significant portion of the manufacturing employment strength rests upon lower-wage jobs," said Goetz Wolff, a UCLA urban policy professor who is writing a report on low-wage manufacturing jobs in Southern California.

Wolff said employment in L.A.'s aerospace industry the highest-paying sector of manufacturing, with an average salary of $60,000 fell by more than 50 percent between 1986 and 1996.

By contrast, apparel, which is L.A.'s largest manufacturing sector, with 114,900 jobs last year, has been the lowest-paying sector. Even at legitimate garment factories, as opposed to underground sweatshops, many entry-level positions pay minimum wage, $5.75 an hour.

Wolff and others said that these lower-wage jobs are not only inferior for the workers themselves, but for the overall economy. That's because workers spend much of their paychecks on local goods and services, so any reduction in manufacturing wages has an amplified effect throughout the economy.

"Each job in aerospace in dollar value is probably three times the annual income of an apparel industry job," Wolff said. "It doesn't take advanced economics to see that aerospace jobs produce a lot more goods and services from the rest of the economy."

But Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, said apparel is a vital industry because it offers entry-level jobs to workers who have little education or training, and gives them an opportunity to move up in the industry.

"It is the only manufacturing industry where, anywhere that you start, you can own the place at some point," Metchek said.

Metchek said this "ladder effect" not found in aerospace is particularly important in the Los Angeles area, which has a large number of recent immigrants with limited education and job skills.

Besides, not all apparel jobs are low-paying. Many jobs categorized as apparel are actually higher-paying positions in accounting, marketing and design jobs that have remained even as many sewing and fabric-cutting slots have been moved to Mexico.

"The good news is that we keep the head office and the planning and marketing jobs, and what we lose is some of the low-wage manufacturing," Lieser said. "Don't get me wrong; I still consider that a major loss, but we still keep the brain center in many cases."

Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Economic Development Corp. of L.A. County, said apparel jobs also have the benefit of not being tagged to the unpredictable defense industry.

"In many cases those were tenuous jobs," Kyser said. "They all depended on the cycle of defense spending. What we have now may not be as rich, but it is reliable."

Some of the other manufacturing sectors that saw significant growth in 1997 include:

? Lumber and wood products, which grew 7.1 percent from 1996 to 10,500 jobs last year;

? Industrial machinery, which grew 4.3 percent to 48,500 jobs, and;

? Fabricated metal products, which grew 2.8 percent to 47,300 jobs last year.

Wolff said that while many of the growing manufacturing companies don't provide the same quality of jobs as aerospace, they are still preferable to retail and other service-industry jobs.

"In general, manufacturing has a higher multiplier effect," he said. "Having a solid manufacturing base provides more general health for the economy because of its multiple linkages to other industries."

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