When President Barack Obama joined Silicon Valley's top luminaries for dinner in California last February, each guest was asked to come with a question for the president.
But as Steve Jobs of Apple spoke, Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: What would it take to make iPhones in the United States?
Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
Why can't that work come home? Obama asked.
Jobs' reply was unambiguous. "Those jobs aren't coming back," he said, according to another dinner guest.
The president's question touched upon a central conviction at Apple. It isn't just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple's executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their U.S. counterparts that "Made in the USA" is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.
What has vexed Obama as well as economists and policymakers is that Apple — like many of its high-technology peers — is not nearly as avid in creating U.S. jobs as other famous companies were in their heydays.
Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas, a small fraction of the more than 400,000 U.S. workers at General Motors in the 1950s, or the hundreds of thousands at General Electric in the 1980s. Many more people work for Apple's contractors: An additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple's other products. But almost none of them work in the United States.
"Apple's an example of why it's so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now," said Jared Bernstein, who until last year was an economic adviser to the White House.
"If it's the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried."
Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone's screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company's dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
"The speed and flexibility is breathtaking," the executive said. "There's no American plant that can match that."
Apple's decisions pose broad questions about what corporate America owes Americans as the global and national economies are increasingly intertwined.
To thrive, companies argue they need to move work where it can generate enough profits to keep paying for innovation. Doing otherwise risks losing even more U.S. jobs over time, as evidenced by the legions of once-proud domestic manufacturers — including GM and others — that have shrunk as nimble competitors have emerged.
"We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries," a current Apple executive said. "We don't have an obligation to solve America's problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible."
In 2007, a little over a month before the iPhone was scheduled to appear in stores, Jobs beckoned a handful of lieutenants into an office. For weeks, he had been carrying a prototype of the device in his pocket.
Jobs angrily held up his iPhone, angling it so everyone could see the dozens of tiny scratches marring its plastic screen, according to someone who attended the meeting. He then pulled his keys from his jeans.
People will carry this phone in their pocket, he said. People also carry their keys in their pocket. "I won't sell a product that gets scratched," he said tensely. The only solution was using unscratchable glass instead. "I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks."
For more than two years, the company had been working on a project — code-named Purple 2 — that presented the same questions at every turn: How do you completely reimagine the cell phone? And how do you design it at the highest quality — with an unscratchable screen, for instance — while also ensuring that millions can be manufactured quickly and inexpensively enough to earn a significant profit?
The answers, almost every time, were found outside the United States. Though components differ between versions, all iPhones contain hundreds of parts, an estimated 90 percent of which are manufactured abroad.
In part, Asia was attractive because the semiskilled workers there were cheaper. But that wasn't driving Apple. For technology companies, the cost of labor is minimal compared with the expense of buying parts and managing supply chains that bring together components and services from hundreds of companies.
For new CEO Tim Cook, the focus on Asia "came down to two things," said one former Apple executive. Factories in Asia "can scale up and down faster" and "Asian supply chains have surpassed what's in the U.S." The result is that "we can't compete at this point," the executive said.
The impact of such advantages became obvious as soon as Jobs demanded glass screens in 2007.
For years, cellphone makers had avoided using glass because it required precision in cutting and grinding that was extremely difficult to achieve. Apple had already selected a U.S. company, Corning Inc., to manufacture large panes of strengthened glass. But figuring out how to cut those panes into millions of iPhone screens required finding an empty cutting plant, hundreds of pieces of glass to use in experiments and an army of midlevel engineers. It would cost a fortune simply to prepare.
Then a bid for the work arrived from a Chinese factory.
When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant's owners were already constructing a new wing. "This is in case you give us the contract," the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.
The Chinese plant got the job.
"The entire supply chain is in China now," said another former high-ranking Apple executive. "You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That's the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours."
An eight-hour drive from that glass factory is a complex, known informally as Foxconn City, where the iPhone is assembled. To Apple executives, Foxconn City was further evidence that China could deliver workers — and diligence — that outpaced their U.S. counterparts.
That's because nothing like Foxconn City exists in the United States.
The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. More than a quarter of Foxconn's workforce lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day.
Foxconn Technology has dozens of facilities in Asia and Eastern Europe, and in Mexico and Brazil, and it assembles an estimated 40 percent of the world's consumer electronics for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung and Sony.
"They could hire 3,000 people overnight," said Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple's worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, but declined to discuss specifics of her work. "What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?"
Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple's executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company's analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States. In China, it took 15 days.
Companies like Apple "say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical workforce," said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. "They're good jobs, but the country doesn't have enough to feed the demand," Schmidt said.
Some aspects of the iPhone are uniquely American. The device's software, for instance, and its innovative marketing campaigns were largely created in the United States. Apple recently built a $500 million data center in North Carolina. Crucial semiconductors inside the iPhone 4 and 4S are manufactured in an Austin, Texas, factory by Samsung of South Korea.
But even those facilities are not enormous sources of jobs. Apple's North Carolina center, for instance, has only 100 full-time employees. The Samsung plant has an estimated 2,400 workers.
"If you scale up from selling 1 million phones to 30 million phones, you don't really need more programmers," said Jean-Louis Gassee, who oversaw product development and marketing for Apple until he left in 1990. "All these new companies — Facebook, Google, Twitter — benefit from this. They grow, but they don't really need to hire much."
The first time Eric Saragoza stepped into Apple's manufacturing plant in Elk Grove, Calif., he felt as if he were entering an engineering wonderland.
It was 1995, and the facility near Sacramento employed more than 1,500 workers. It was a kaleidoscope of robotic arms, conveyor belts ferrying circuit boards and, eventually, candy-colored iMacs in various stages of assembly. Saragoza, an engineer, quickly moved up the plant's ranks and joined an elite diagnostic team. His salary climbed to $50,000. He and his wife had three children. They bought a home with a pool.
"It felt like, finally, school was paying off," he said. "I knew the world needed people who can build things."
At the same time, however, the electronics industry was changing, and Apple — with products that were declining in popularity — was struggling to remake itself. One focus was improving manufacturing. A few years after Saragoza started his job, his bosses explained how the California plant stacked up against overseas factories: the cost, excluding the materials, of building a $1,500 computer in Elk Grove was $22 a machine. In Singapore, it was $6. In Taiwan, $4.85. Wages weren't the major reason for the disparities. Rather, it was costs like inventory and how long it took workers to finish a task.
"We were told we would have to do 12-hour days, and come in on Saturdays," Saragoza said. "I had a family. I wanted to see my kids play soccer."