Is lack of leadership sabotaging US manufacturing’s rebound?

ManufacturingEditor’s Note:  I live in Wisconsin,
whose economy relies about 20% on manufacturing (about twice the national average), so this story hits home particularly well.

American leadership is off-course in improving US manufacturing competitiveness while at the same time the national economy is weak and fragile. That’s according to a new survey from New York-based consultancy Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.

The survey of 1,000 Americans across all 50 states shows they have a jaundiced view of the nation’s overall economic health, with 59 percent indicating that the economy has “not improved or gotten better” in recent years. For manufacturing, only 16 percent of Americans feel it’s likely to improve in the next 12 months. In contrast, 23 percent feel manufacturing will continue to weaken.

The fourth-annual “Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing” further found that 84 percent “agree” or “strongly agree” that the US needs a more strategic approach to developing its manufacturing base. A wide majority (82 percent) support further investment into America’s manufacturing industry.

Some other downside stats:

  • Only about 35 percent of respondents believe that federal and state leadership are helping create a competitive advantage for the US versus other countries.
  • Barely half (49 percent) of Americans say they “agree” or “strongly agree” that their local school systems are able to expose students to the appropriate skills required to pursue a job in manufacturing – and 79 percent say the education system needs reform.

Despite this gloomy mood, Americans do have faith in our technology expertise and resources to bolster manufacturing. Almost eight out of 10 cited America’s technological prowess as one of the key contributors to the nation’s competitive advantage. Further, three out of four cited America’s R&D capabilities as a key advantage.

Americans want manufacturing … for someone else

While Americans are obviously anxious about our manufacturing future, they also maintain a remarkable belief in manufacturing despite year after year of economic turbulence. In keeping with previous years, 90 percent of respondents rated manufacturing as “important” or “very important” for US economic prosperity and our standard of living.

What’s more, when asked what type of facility they’d establish if given an opportunity to create 1,000 new jobs in their community, respondents again placed manufacturing at the top of the list – ahead of all other industries including energy, technology, healthcare and communications.

Over the long term, though, most Americans see US manufacturing getting weaker (46 percent) or at best staying the same (32 percent). Equally concerning are these stats:

  • Only 64 percent believe US manufacturing can compete effectively in the global marketplace.
  • About four out of 10 think that a manufacturing career is as secure and stable as a career in other industries, and nearly twice as many believe manufacturing jobs are the first to be outsourced to other countries.
  • And sadly, only 35 percent say they’d encourage their children to pursue careers in manufacturing, despite the advanced skills required to work in today’s highly technical and advanced manufacturing facilities.

My Thoughts:  Acknowledging the perceived (and actual) negatives here, what’s to be done to address the downsides of US manufacturing today? Here are a few of my suggestions:

1) Require all kids to take what used to be called “Industrial Arts” classes in middle school. No, not old-fashioned woodworking, welding or metal shop, but classes that expose them to the high-tech CNC machines, computer-controlled equipment and robotic systems that skilled, real-world manufacturing staff use everyday. 2) Provide for more use of an “apprenticeship” system of education. Let some kids take basic courses through age 16, then be apprenticed into the manufacturing field of their choice. Not everybody should go to college. 3) Strengthen US intellectual-property rights and patent protection so that American manufacturers don’t lose business to cheap, foreign knock-offs of their own products, and thus help them better compete in the global market. And 4) Have the President call a National Manufacturing Summit of Congressional, business and labor leaders, and don’t let them out of the room until they agree on a specific strategy (and timetable) for growing the US manufacturing base.

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