For many years, U.S.-based companies' shipment of jobs overseas has distressed many Americans. Given the state of the American economy, though, it's becoming more apparent that bringing some jobs back is an economic need, not a knee-jerk principle.
Unemployment is still high, and many Americans continue to suffer. They're unemployed or underemployed. Many have taken part-time jobs; they're working hard and still can't make ends meet.
Some huge American companies aren't helping. They're still eroding our advantage by engaging in counterproductive behaviors like mass layoffs. Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. Some companies' positive moves may be more about economics than altruism, but they're a step in the right direction in terms of helping America.
Some of the disappointments are galling. Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) announced its plans to lay off 4,000 employees, despite the fact that it remains profitable, reported good sales figures last quarter, and has cash on the balance sheet.
In terms of our current topic, Cisco is no new offender. If you look up the record, it's conducted many mass layoffs over the years. In 2011, it slashed 9% of its workforce, or 6,500 jobs; it then turned around and said it would ship 5,000 jobs to Mexico and to the infamous Foxconn in China.
I can think of many reasons not to invest in Cisco; serial layoffs and shipping jobs overseas are the tip of the iceberg. For example, the currently haunting idea that Cisco may be becoming less competitive should bring up one key question: Has its serial layoff strategy hurt it, even if short-term traders cheered it on?
As disappointing as that may be, though, some companies are indicating a sea change under way, bringing jobs back to our shores.
In August, MarketWatch reported on a manufacturing summit attended by some of our most massive companies and public officials, and some corporate heads revealed interesting news.
Jeffrey Immelt, the well-known head of General Electric (NYSE:GE), pointed out that that household name is increasingly manufacturing energy-efficient light bulbs in the U.S.
It was easy to view Wal-Mart's (NYSE:WMT) vow to stock $50 billion worth of "Made in the USA" items over the next decades with a jaundiced eye. At the summit, Wal-Mart's U.S. head pointed out that the economics of bringing jobs here make "total sense."
Of course the economics are elementary, for Wal-Mart and many other companies. Just last week, Wal-Mart's quarterly tidings continued to echo a frightening refrain for America. Its core customers are struggling; their budgets are constrained by rising food and energy prices -- in other words, necessities.
Today, there's something shameful about companies that are crippling the American economy with pure short-term bottom-line motives. They're ignoring the fact that they may be laying off their own customers; other companies' layoffs also reduce their own revenues and profits.
Looking at long-term bottom lines, here and abroad
Some companies have recognized the value of employment far beyond the kind of near-term bottom-line thinking that companies like the Cisco example applies.
Apple is currently manufacturing some Macs in the U.S. It's also creating jobs through construction of giant solar arrays. There's long been the theory that Apple had the kind of big money to embark on big thinking about bringing jobs back.
In a more impressive example, Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM) manages an admirable balance between helping folks overseas and here at home. Many of its programs and products help support struggling economies across the world, helping increase many people's fortunes and futures through programs that give them a major platform to sell their products as well as enjoy the fruits of fair trade.
However, Whole Foods also carries a wide variety of what I'd call micro-local goods. Alert Whole Foods Market customers can find produce grown by small farmers located within miles, baked goods from local bakeries, and hand-made items by American artisans.
Local products aren't simply about American pride. They also reduce costs associated with factors like transportation, as well as negative externalities that are too often passed along to the general public, like damaging environmental footprints. These are different kinds of value proposition that many investors don't even contemplate when they look at stocks and future growth, but they're real.
Real life, real people in America
If Americans can't purchase, many companies' revenues suffer. Jobless Americans aren't good for the long-standing idea that consumer spending makes up two-thirds of our economy. Recent anemic consumer spending data doesn't please investors. However, traders never seem to quite recognize how consumer spending relates to real life and real people.
The average American citizen can become more constrained in myriad ways, and in ripple effects. They eschew some items so that they can buy others -- often basics. They may allocate more of their funds to help struggling relatives. In addition, public assistance relates to all of us, too.
Sadly, this isn't really a sudden decision to do the right thing. In many cases, the reasons that some of these companies are moving jobs back to the U.S. is simply that China's becoming more expensive for manufacturing.
The saddest part of this is that many companies' managements have likely failed to understand that they have been part of the problem, not the solution, over the years since the financial crisis. Even worse, many companies may be failing at innovation. At some point, skeleton crews of workers whose morale has been beaten down likely won’t execute on the most innovative dreams.
Right now, more focus on "Made in America" items would be a boon for our struggling economy and others overseas; visionary companies that find ways to balance both are the dream we should aspire to. People can't help others much until they can help themselves. Thankfully, more signs point to some paths home.
Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.