Recently, I pulled my favorite old wool jacket out of the hall closet to begin yet another winter season. The jacket is really starting to look its age, but I love it for the quality, the colors and the comfort, and for the Made in America label stitched onto the worn lining. It reminds me of the days when many of the things Americans bought — everything from clothing to tools — were made in the U.S.A., and I think it is high time a few more of them were again.
This is certainly not a plea for trade protectionism or a protest against globalization; far from it. Domestic manufacturing strength and globalization are not mutually exclusive.
It just seems particularly ironic that the country should be struggling with high unemployment, out-of-balance trade figures, a gigantic budget deficit, international terrorism, and global warming without giving more serious attention to reviving manufacturing in America. There were about 20 million manufacturing jobs here in 1979, and there are only about 12 million left today. That looks like a lot of potential for good to me.
Fortunately, I am not the only one who has been lying awake at night thinking about this. Last spring, MIT hosted a forum with the Council on Competitiveness to examine new ways to rebuild the manufacturing base in America. You can read all about it online at http://web.mit.edu/.
Host and MIT president Susan Hockfield got the ball rolling by noting that, “To recover from the current economic downturn, it has been estimated that we need to create on the order of 17 million to 20 million new jobs in the coming decade. … It is very hard to imagine where those jobs are going to come from unless we seriously get busy reinventing manufacturing.”
Suzanne Berger, author of How We Compete: What Companies Around the World Are Doing to Make It in Today's Global Economy, debunked the we-can't-compete-with-low-wages-elsewhere notion by observing that “the big problem is not that we can't compete…on low wages…but that the United States has not developed enough kinds of manufacturing that could generate both high profits and also good jobs.”
Other speakers explored what some of those solutions might look like, from developing new categories of products, such as new materials and pharmaceuticals, to utilizing innovative manufacturing processes, including everything from advanced robotics to nano-manufacturing. Many of these things are being done already, of course, both here and elsewhere in the world. One speaker advocated for the use of “small-lot logistics,” technologies to reduce production and transportation costs so that more companies could be successful without the need to achieve huge economies of scale.
It will surely take measures like these and many others to get the country busy manufacturing more goods domestically again, but it seems unthinkable that we should not begin at once to align national policies and resources to help make it happen. I don't know about you, but I would feel more secure if we resolved to do a little less “bailing” and a lot more manufacturing right now, right here at home.
Wendy Leavitt is Fleet Owner's director of editorial development. She can be reached at [email protected]