This election, candidates must get serious about manufacturing
© Getty Images

As we stand poised on the threshold of electing a new president, the conversation around job creation must focus on strengthening the environment for American manufacturing. 

Before debating how to best propel U.S. manufacturing into a true renaissance, candidates should also disavow a few common misconceptions about the modern manufacturing environment. If the word “manufacturing” conjures up images of an outdated factory, or unskilled workers toiling over mundane tasks to create identical widgets, I have a message: 1970 called, and it wants its cliché back.

ADVERTISEMENT

The realistic picture of today’s manufacturing world more closely resembles a state-of-the-art laboratory. Here is where research and development teams work closely with skilled talent to invent new technologies used by companies and people throughout the world, keeping the U.S. globally competitive.

New coatings that deflect ice build-up on airplanes and reduce internal aircraft temperatures; thermoplastic composites improving rear suspensions for world-class race cars; solar-reflective paint that can make a house more energy efficient and appear freshly painted years after application. These examples are innovations created throughout PPG’s manufacturing facilities. This is manufacturing, this is innovation, and this is what propels our nation’s economy.

According to the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) Program, manufacturers are responsible for 75 percent of private-sector research and development. They employ two-thirds of the nation’s R&D workforce and hold the majority of patents issued by the Department of Commerce. Since 2010, the United States added almost 900,000 manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s equally important to note the types of jobs that now exist in manufacturing: skilled talent, with a heavy focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. And the industry actually represents one of the U.S. economy’s most stable sectors, with an unemployment rate of just 4 percent at the end of last year.

Candidates should commit to investing in STEM outreach initiatives as a critical step toward revitalizing the American manufacturing sector. Employment opportunities are expected to grow by 17 percent through 2018, but the gap in available workers continues to widen. The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte estimate that by 2025, this gap will translate into 2 million unfilled American manufacturing jobs.

PPG supports the growth of access to education in the STEM disciplines through targeted efforts, including direct grants to nonprofits, colleges and universities; community outreach such as facility tours; science demonstrations; and mentoring and job-shadowing programs. But the candidates should commit to closing the current labor gap as one of their first economic priorities. 

One way to do that is to address outdated immigration policies that prevent much-needed talent from entering the country. For example, the government caps H-18 visas at 85,000 per year, and these are selected via lottery. Hundreds of thousands more applicants are turned away, including graduate students who take their degrees earned at U.S. universities to work for our international competitors. Updating these policies would allow that talent to remain here.

Finally, manufacturers such as PPG require an affordable, reliable energy supply to remain competitive. A 2016 report by Oxford Economics attributes the current uptick in manufacturing in part to relatively low energy costs. Oil, natural gas, and clean coal remain essential contributors to America’s energy security, but we also must invest in other energy sources as well as systems that promote energy efficiency.

The technologies developed by manufacturers such as PPG play a central role in creating jobs and positioning the United States’ competitive advantage in a global marketplace. But our next president and Congress will need to roll up their sleeves in order to design a more prosperous future: a future that will only exist if rooted in strong manufacturing jobs.

Bem is Vice President of Science and Technology and Chief Technology Officer of Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries.
The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.