DETROIT — Manufacturing is having a moment, and the National Association of Manufacturers wants to spread the word and, of course, build even more momentum.
NAM president and CEO Jay Timmons toured Detroit on Friday, the third stop during a whirlwind six-city, eight-day tour that stretches from Austin, Texas, to New York. His itinerary included an hour in Dearborn at the Ford Virtual Manufacturing Lab and a couple hours with students from Macomb Community College.
It kicked off, though, with a stump speech of sorts, a state of manufacturing address at the Detroit Economic Club for business leaders in a city built on it. And, all things considered, Timmons’ outlook is relatively rosy.
“The last two years — really the last two months — have brought us a lot of surprises, including many positive developments,” he said. “Of course, we have questions and concerns … on issues like trade and immigration. But it’s undeniable that for the millions of men and women who make things in America, the state of manufacturing is growing stronger and they’re more optimistic.
“Manufacturing propelled a presidential election, and the President of the United States has made manufacturing in the United States his signature issue. However, and this is very important, you don’t see some of the same factories you used to. For so many, that’s a true source of pain. And as business leaders, we have an obligation and a responsibility to address that head-on.”
Timmons discussed how NAM and the industry as a whole need to show workers “that, yes, they do … have a place in the modern economy”; that jobs should be both upskilled and upscaled, “equipping people with the talents and the flexibility to thrive”; and that so, so many jobs need to filled — 350,000 today, and 3.5 million, according to NAM and Deloitte, over the next decade.
Just as important, Timmons said, are three “big-ticket” items: regulatory reform, infrastructure investment and tax reform.
Regarding regulatory reform — more than a talking point for Donald Trump, who has ordered two regulations be stricken for every one added — Timmons cited two jarring number from a recent NAM study: 297,696 specific regulations impact manufacturing, and the cost of regulatory compliance for small manufacturers is $35,000 per employee per year.
“Regulatory reform,” he said, “making regulations smarter, simpler, and streamlined is one of the quickest ways to create jobs and give manufacturers the confidence they need to expand. … If we can work together, from the Department of Labor to the EPA, I guarantee you we will achieve those goals.”
Regarding investment in infrastructure, “I’d like to think the NAM got out ahead on this one,” Timmons said, in large thanks to the report “Building to Win”, which has been linked to and repeatedly referenced by Trump.
“It’s great to have the administration focusing on infrastructure, and we hear public statements from many Democrats and Republicans about the type of modernization we’re calling for. So I think we’ve got a great foundation to build on here, and it’s really not an issue you can overstate,” Timmons said. “Our infrastructure is just not what a 21st-century economic powerhouse needs. It’s crumbling, it’s outdated and, frankly, it’s dangerous.”
Finally, regarding tax reform, “We want to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15%,” Timmons said, “which is what the President has proposed. Small businesses have to see reduced taxes, as well. They can’t be left behind.”
NAM wants a shift toward a modern, territorial tax structure that will incentivize money “parked overseas” to return to the U.S. to be invested and to create jobs here. “And we want to strengthen research and development incentives and see faster deductions for capital investments,” Timmons said. “These changes would result in more than $3.3 trillion in investments, more than $12 trillion in gross domestic product growth, and more than 6.5 million jobs for American workers. That’s the kind of transformational jolt we have to deliver to every working family in this country.”
Timmons appeared as energetic as ever during the third stop after spending Wednesday in Austin, Texas, and Thursday in New York. The tour really kicked off, though, on Tuesday — and on YouTube, with a stirring video that, no surprise, championed manufacturing and its workers: “Manufacturing isn’t just a job,” the spot proclaimed. “It’s a career. A family. A promise. And it’s building America. … This is modern manufacturing. This is the future.”
The video turned to Ronald Reagan, too, invoking, in the wake of the recent Republican election victories, nostalgia for a staunch economic conservative and champion for manufacturing: “The people who say that American workers and American companies can’t compete, are making one of the oldest mistakes in the world,” the 40th President said in his unmistakable timbre. “They’re betting against America itself, and that’s a bet no one will ever win.”
Reagan said those words near the midpoint of his second term, May 6, 1987, almost 30 years ago, to a Harley-Davidson warehouse filled with workers in York, Pennsylvania. Reagan discussed how Harley-Davidson had improved in previous years, cutting work hours needed to build a motorcycle by one-third, cutting inventory by two-thirds, tripling the number of defect-free machines shipped. “And with productivity up, you kept price increases small,” Reagan told them, “and on some bikes you even lowered prices.”
Some of that success was spurred by the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in effect from October 1947 until April 1994, just prior to the establishment of the World Trade Organization. The Harley-Davidson turnaround, Reagan said, “makes a very strong statement about how government, through the judicious application of our trade laws, can help the best and the brightest in American management and labor come together in ways that will create new jobs, new growth, and new prosperity.
“Government’s role, particularly on the trade front, should be one of creating the conditions where fair trade will flourish. … Our trade laws should work to foster growth and trade, not shut it off.”
How will trade agreements — NAFTA and otherwise — affect American manufacturing in the months and years to come?
“Our future is filled with promise,” Timmons said. “There is no doubt that our confidence is higher than at any time in the last decade. This is our time.”
Strong words, and in line with one more statement delivered by Reagan at that Harley plant nearly three decades ago: “I'll put my bet on you, and on America.”