May 30--For two decades, American workers have watched helplessly as U.S. companies sent manufacturing jobs to China.
Now -- in what is believed to be a first for Pennsylvania -- a Chinese company is setting up shop here, in the Lehigh Valley.
Taizhou Fuling Plastics is building an 88,000-square-foot facility in the Iron Run Industrial Park in Fogelsville. It is expected to create 75 jobs.
"This is the beginning of what could be a shift," said Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. CEO Don Cunningham, who was among the state and local officials on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday. "We'll see if it continues."
Founded in 1992, Taizhou Fuling makes plastic cutlery at three plants in China. Among its biggest customers are American fast-food chains
The company's new American plant will operate under the name Fuling Plastics USA.
Speaking through an interpreter, Taizhou Fuling's founder and CEO Xin Fu Hu explained what drove the decision to make the move.
He noted that American wages are 10 times higher than Chinese wages. But, he said, trans-Pacific shipping costs are an even bigger expense.
Less shipping is also better for the environment, he said.
In recent years, a number of prominent American manufacturers have repatriated jobs previously sent to China. The trend is driven, in part, by increased automatization, which reduces the advantage of cheap labor.
President Barack Obama made a reference to the phenomenon -- called "on-shoring" -- in his last State of the Union address, praising Master Lock for returning 100 jobs to Milwaukee.
But since Taizhou Fuling is not an American company, what it is doing fits into another category.
Hu said other Chinese manufacturers are closely watching Taizhou Fuling's example and could soon follow its lead.
In recent years, a small but growing number of Chinese firms have established operations in this country. They now have more than 70,000 Americans on their payrolls, up from barely 10,000 in 2007, according to the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm in New York.
Before settling on the Lehigh Valley, Fu said Taizhou Fuling considered other locations, including in New Jersey, Maryland and both North and South Carolina.
Cunningham said LVEDC staff knows of no other example of a Chinese manufacturer establishing a plant in Pennsylvania.
"This is a big one for us," he said of landing Taizhou Fuling, because it can be used as a recruiting tool for other foreign companies. "It's a strong story to be able to tell."
About one-third of the companies talking to LVEDC about a possible move to the Lehigh Valley are foreign, he said.