You’ve likely used a General Electric refrigerator or an RCA television. Both were once manufactured in factories employing thousands of my neighbors in Bloomington, Ind. Sadly, both of these plants have closed. GE rolled out its final side-by-side refrigerator on Aug. 26, 2016 resulting in a loss of over 300 good wage jobs. Bloomington is not alone in dealing with the challenges facing our country’s manufacturing sector.
Now is the time to take decisive steps to bolster U.S. manufacturing, before more plants close and more jobs disappear. Leaders from industry, labor, government and the academic community must work together to forge new policies. They must, jointly, be willing to innovate and experiment on products and markets, and to promote and support a new generation of workers with 21st century skills.
That is the motivation behind Indiana University’s Initiative on Manufacturing and a conference we’re hosting in Washington, D.C. aimed at sending a strong message to the next president and to the new Congress. The reason these leaders are willing to meet in Washington Sept. 14 to hammer out policy proposals is simple: manufacturing is a big deal:
- Manufacturers contributed $2.17 trillion to the economy last year, making it by itself one of the world’s top ten largest economies. Manufactured goods constitute nearly 90% of all U.S. exports.
- More than 12 million Americans work in manufacturing. That’s 9% of the labor force. The vast majority work for small companies, many that are family owned with fewer than 500 employees in addition to larger publicly traded firms like GE and Carrier.
- The U.S. manufacturing sector is far from withering. In fact, from 2013 to 2014, manufacturing employment rose in 40 states. The big winners ranged from Oregon to Ohio, Colorado to Florida and Indiana too.
- Today our nation’s workforce is in transition as it adjusts to retirements and restructuring in industries. Still, there is a growing need for skilled workers. According to a study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, over the next decade, nearly 3½ million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the work skills gap.
Securing an adequate, trained labor force is a priority for manufacturers but far from the only hurdle. The status of current and future trade agreements is uncertain as they’ve become campaign fodder. Another open question concerns regulatory reform. Will the next White House take an aggressive posture on imposing new regulations or adopt a more cautious approach that requires the costs and benefits to align?
The experts connected to the Initiative on Manufacturing are ready to weigh in and offer their advice for the new president. At the Washington conference, we’ll explore topics including: education and manufacturing; international trade, China, and TPP; innovation, entrepreneurship, and energy; manufacturing and national security; manufacturing and tax policy; and manufacturing and regulatory reform.
We’ll produce a list of the most urgent steps the next president should take during his or her first 100 days in office and put these recommendations in the hands of the campaigns and their transition teams. While the leading candidates disagree on most issues, they do agree that strengthening manufacturing is a priority.
So there’s hope. The empty factories may not come roaring back to churn out home appliances for big box stores. But there can be life there. The next step is right in front of us – getting the right mix of policies to go along with our growing understanding that manufacturing still matters.
John D. Graham is the dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, home of the Manufacturing and Policy Initiative. He is among the speakers at the conference, “What the Next President Should Do About U.S. Manufacturing: An Agenda for the First 100 Days,” on Sept. 14 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.