Needed: A U.S. manufacturing renaissance

January 05, 2012

With the pox that is the U.S. presidential election campaign upon us, it’s a good time to begin looking at concrete proposals for reviving the U.S. economy and identifying a new engine for economic growth. I submit that the incumbent and all of his challengers begin by focusing on what could be called a U.S. manufacturing renaissance.
Simply put, the United States must significantly increase the amount of stuff it makes, be it mobile devices, commercial jets or construction equipment. It’s one obvious way we can extract ourselves from the decade-old pattern of economic stagnation and declining wages that threatens the continued existence of the American middle class.

Electronics technology fueled several generations of U.S. innovation and economic prosperity, but electronics manufacturing and the jobs it created are long gone. U.S. companies like Apple remain global leaders in consumer product design, but an economic revival requires domestic manufacturing jobs.

Some technology entrepreneurs are trying.

During a recent visit to XCOR Aerospace, an entrepreneurial company looking to send tourists to the edge of space and satellites into orbit, company co-founder Jeff Greason told us he had a stack of engineering resumes on his desk and all the aeronautical engineers he could use. What the company needs, and what it is still unable to find, are machinists and electricians who can manufacture the guts of XCOR’s rockets.

Like software engineers in Taiwan, machinists in the States are worth their weight in gold and can take their pick of high-paying jobs. A high school graduate with a lot more on the ball than this correspondent would ensure a bright future by taking up a vocation like welding or structural engineering. A recent report about the growing need for workers with basic technical skills found that highly skilled airplane mechanics were being snapped up left and right by energy companies expanding their natural gas distribution networks.

When those trained workers leave, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find replacements.

So why isn’t the U.S. education system responding to this shortfall? One reason is that a growing number of strictly for-profit colleges are siphoning off as much as $26 billion a year, according to Bloomberg, from U.S. student loan programs. In many cases, unsuspecting students are left with meager job prospects and crushing student loan debt.

One political reform would be closing loopholes in federal student loan programs that allow companies like Goldman Sachs (yes, Goldman Sachs!) to enter the tech school diploma racket. The Wall Street giant owns about 38 percent of Education Management Corp., parent company of the Art Institutes. The sole requirement for admission to AI and a growing list of for-profit colleges appears to be a pulse.

Fixing the student loan program would allow those funds to be more effectively used for vocational training programs that could create the next generation of skilled U.S. manufacturing workers.

The Obama administration paid lip service to manufacturing over the last three years as more manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas. In December, the White House finally acted by creating a cabinet-level Office of Manufacturing Policy. Why did it wait this long? Is it mere coincidence that the initiative has arrived just as the administration is ramping its reelection campaign?

Policy-makers within the administration “increasingly realize that a robust national recovery in the long term is impossible without a manufacturing sector," Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's taken a while for them to come to that conclusion, but I give them credit for getting this far."

If nothing else, creation of a White House manufacturing office will compel presidential candidates and policy-makers alike to get cracking on a viable national manufacturing policy. Whatever the election’s outcome, America needs a coherent manufacturing plan that gets our engineers and technicians back to work.

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