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Attention Walmart Shoppers!

There are some things we assumed we never would see in our lifetime: The melting of the polar ice caps; a car that runs on electricity; the ocean running out of fish; a labor shortage in China; the Mets winning back-to-back championships.

Well, with the exception of the item relating to the long-suffering denizens of Flushing Meadow, you can throw that list out the window.

From Saturday’s front page of The New York Times comes a startling report that unskilled factory workers in China’s industrial heartland are being offered “signing bonuses” and 20-percent salary increases. The world’s most populous nation – at least 1.3 billion people call it home—apparently is suffering from an acute labor shortage. “Cheap labor” and China no longer are synonymous.

The Times reports that some Chinese manufacturers, already weeks behind schedule because they can’t find enough workers, are closing down production lines and considering raising prices. Telemarketers in China are turning away potential customers because recruiters have fully booked them to cold-call people and offer them jobs.

The immediate cause of the labor crunch in China is said to be a shift in worker relocations that resulted from the massive stimulus package China enacted during the global economic crisis. Millions of migrant workers employed in coastal cities returned to their rural homes for the long Lunar New Year last month, but these workers are not planning to go back to their jobs in the cities because the government’s half-trillion-dollar stimulus program has created plenty of work where they live.

However, economists also see a longer-term trend: after two decades of unparalleled growth, China is simply running out of workers. This trend was masked last year by massive layoffs at the nadir of the downturn, but now it has emerged with a roar as China resumes its double-digit growth.

The impact of this unexpected labor shortage likely will be measured soon in price increases for American consumers who are addicted to low-cost goods made in China. It also may spawn inflation in China as wages there rise. The average wage rate for factory workers in Guangzhou was 80 cents an hour two years ago. Today, it is $1.17 and moving higher every month. “You can walk into any factory and get a job,” a 22-year-old plastics worker told the Times.

While this is not good news for U.S. consumers, it may prove to be a blessing for U.S. manufacturers. Rising prices on Chinese goods, accompanied by rising wages for Chinese workers, may be a more effective brake on the tidal wave of Chinese exports to the U.S. than the currency revaluation the U.S. unsuccessfully has been urging the Chinese government to undertake.

Also, as Chinese workers earn more money, millions of them are going to want to buy their first car—and the most popular car in China is an American standard known as Buick.

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