California is the nation's leading industrial state, ranking 1st in almost every general manufacturing category: number of establishments, number of employees, total payroll, value added by manufacture, value of shipments, and new capital spending. Specifically, California ranks among the leaders in machinery, fabricated metals, agricultural products, food processing, computers, aerospace technology, and many other industries.

With its shipyards, foundries, flour mills, and workshops, San Francisco was the state's first manufacturing center. The number of manufacturing establishments in California nearly doubled between 1899 and 1914, and the value of manufactures increased almost tenfold from 1990 to 1925. New factories for transportation equipment, primary metal products, chemicals and food products sprang up in the state during and after World War II. Second to New York State in industrial output for many years, California finally surpassed that state in most manufacturing categories in the 1972 Census of Manufacturers.

California's industrial workforce is mainly located in the two major manufacturing centers: almost three-fourths work in either the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Orange County area or the San Francisco–Oakland–San Jose area. Although the state workforce has a wide diversity of talents and products, the majority produces food, electronic and other electrical equipment, transportation equipment, apparel, and fabricated and industrial machinery.

Computers and aerospace manufacturers stand out among California's largest publicly owned corporations. Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Tandem Computers, Varian Associates, and Silicon Graphics are leading names of the Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County) area just south of San Francisco. Southern California's manufacturing leaders are Rockwell International, Lockheed, Northrop, and Computers Sciences.

Leading manufacturers on the list of California private companies are Levi Strauss, Del Monte, Sunkist Growers, and Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery, showing the continuing strength that the Golden State has historically maintained in apparel and food production and processing. Apparel manufacturers employed over 144,000 people in 1999. Over $50 billion of food products is shipped annually.

The aerospace industry in California accounts for $28 billion in sales annually, employs about 117,000, and takes up a 20% share of the nation's total aerospace employment.

In 1999, California's motion picture industry, based primarily in Los Angeles, had receipts of at least $28 billion. In 1999, the film and TV production industry generated an annual payroll of $13.4 billion and pays $14.6 billion to suppliers while providing jobs to 475,000 Californians.

The tourism industry in California brings in over $60 billion in sales annually, and provides jobs for nearly 700,000 Californians.

Earnings of persons employed in California increased from $627 billion in 1997 to $677 billion in 1998, an increase of 7.9%. The largest industries in 1998 were services, 32.4% of earnings; state and local government, 11.4%; and durable goods manufacturing, 11.1%. Of the industries that accounted for at least 5% of earnings in 1998, the slowest growing from 1997 to 1998 was state and local government, which increased 5.5%; the fastest was durable goods manufacturing, which increased 10.9%.