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Why Does Apple Want You to Know How Many Employees It Has?

Apple hopes counting employees will help solve its public relations problems.

Apple, which offers customers a free moral quandary along with each groundbreaking new gadget, hired an economic analysis firm to study its impact on the labor market, then released the results to the public last week.

The company, which relentlessly controls its public image, hasn’t addressed the motivation for the study, but it’s fairly obvious that it's part of the company’s response to criticism of the labor conditions in its suppliers' factories, which also make products for the other major American tech company.

The count-your-workers response seems to confuse two issues: Many Apple customers wrestle with how they can buy the company’s high-quality goods while expressing some human solidarity with the workers who build them, but it’s not clear what the number of U.S. employees has to do with labor rights standards at factories in China.

Another critique concerns Apple’s responsibility to its home country and whether the company ought to be making products in the United States. Though almost all of its manufacturing is done abroad, Apple says it supports jobs for about half a million people in the United States. But the company gets a little creative to reach that figure.

There are 47,000 people working directly for Apple in the U.S.; of these, 7,700 are customer support operators and 27,350 work retail in Apple Stores. That leaves about 12,000 engineers, designers, marketers and the like doing the kind of white-collar tech product work we see as the company’s core business.

Analysis Group, the firm Apple hired to conduct the study, then looked at the company’s spending and business practices and concluded that it supports 257,000 jobs at other companies—including the UPS guy who delivers your iPad, suppliers who sell computer chips to the company and the folks at Corning who make the gorilla glass Apple users swipe all day.

But while it’s fair to say Apple supports these jobs to some extent, it’s hard to imagine that if the company wasn't around at least some of these folks wouldn’t be building computer chips for other devices, or that the volume of Apple shipping single-handedly keeps UPS in business.

The company also lays claim to the 210,000 developers and designers who build apps for people to use on Apple devices. While Apple’s development of iOS as a platform for third-party applications was ground-breaking, it’s similarly hard to imagine that all those programmers would be out of work absent Apple’s platform.

Meanwhile, the company says it has some 33,000 employees worldwide, but it doesn’t bother to count up the jobs it supports in its supply chain, etc., the way it does in the United States—probably because the number is far higher abroad. A study [PDF] released last year found that in 2006, Apple’s iPod business employed 13,920 people in the United States and 27,250 abroad.

Assuming that ratio has held roughly consistent, which seems safe given the addition of so many new products manufactured abroad, Apple is probably employing hundreds of thousands more people abroad than it does in the United States.

When you combine the two critiques of Apple, the result is confusion: Workers in the Apple economy abroad aren’t being fairly treated, and we need more jobs like that in the United States.

But that doesn’t make sense—and indeed, Apple’s decision to manufacture its products abroad wasn’t just driven by cheap labor costs, but also by the ability to find 9,000 trained engineers in one place and the desire to have factories near growing markets in Asia.

Some of those advantages won't ever be replicated here, but creating the kind of country that can take advantage of the tech economy—a highly educated workforce and the infrastructure to match it—isn't just one company's responsibility, but everyone's. Meanwhile, Apple's investments in the Chinese economy, along with many other global companies, have helped lift millions their out of poverty and help set the country on a path to development.

Instead of how many jobs the company has created and where, what should concern Apple—and its stakeholders—is whether they're treating workers fairly, wherever they are.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user orangefred

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