It held steady for nearly 30 years, but no longer. With the turn of the new century came a rapid decline in manufacturing employment. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute blames these job losses on trade deficits, not productivity growth as many believe. But that might not tell the whole story.

According to the report, growing trade deficits – increases in imports reducing the demand for domestically produced goods –  led to the loss of 3.6 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007. In the following two years, the time of the Great Recession, the massive collapse in the U.S. economy hit the manufacturing sector particularly hard.

“We are not losing manufacturing jobs to robots, we’re losing them to China,” said EPI’s Robert E. Scott. “Manufacturing job losses are not the inevitable result of technological progress. They were caused by trade policy, and they can be reversed by trade policy.”

Brad Markell with the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council credited the report for drawing attention to the trade imbalance. “There needs to be more of a focus on trade. The administration has put forth policies that have been good in terms of job creation and other areas, but not on trade.”

IBEW Manufacturing Department Director Randy Middleton said other factors also contribute. “There is the increase in automation, lean manufacturing, jobs moving overseas. Trade is part of it, but it’s not the only cause.”

The EPI report advocates reforming and enforcing fair trade laws and investing in necessary infrastructure improvements, which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates will cost $3.6 trillion. This could create up to 3 million jobs that would be sustained for over seven years. As a first step, Congress will need to approve a multi-year extension of federal transportation funding which is currently stuck in the House of Representatives.

Middleton also emphasized the need for fair trade laws, including a focus on buying U.S. goods. “Why we don’t have a ‘Made in America’ policy is beyond me.”

Read the report here.