Editor's Page -- Filling Manufacturing's Leadership Void

Tired of lipservice, new leaders are taking matters into their own hands.

At just the time when the U.S. manufacturing sector needs strong leadership to help it navigate what many agree are historic structural changes, those from whom we'd expect such guidance are missing in action. Worse, they are failing to acknowledge, except at the most cursory level, the legitimate concerns of increasing numbers of manufacturing executives. Their actions -- or rather inaction -- are deepening the rift between competing manufacturing interests and needlessly weakening entire strands of the complex tapestry that makes U.S. manufacturers the envy of the world. (See A House Divided: Manufacturing In Crisis). Mercifully, new leaders -- including, dare I say, a corporate statesman? -- are stepping into the breach.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The leadership void begins at the nation's capital, where lipservice to the importance of manufacturing dates to the 2004 presidential campaign. Then, with President Bush's re-election efforts floundering along with the fortunes of a struggling manufacturing sector, the U.S. Department of Commerce unveiled its "strategy to address challenges to U.S. manufacturers." Many manufacturing observers, myself included, were dissappointed. We saw few manufacturing-targeted goals and many old, repackaged, general business policies. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), however, claimed victory -- the administration addressed many of the issues they'd lobbied for.

See Also...

President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Report

"Manufacturing in America" report

Albert Frink's Congressional Testimony

Now, though many of the administration's policies have been implemented, issues most critical to small- and medium-size manufacturers remain unresolved and are ignored by these leaders. The trade deficit continues to set records, China continues to flout world trade rules, and small- and medium-size manufacturers have been left to fend for themselves. The leaders who are supposed to advocate for them instead brand them protectionist, point to some positive signs of a manufacturing recovery and patronizingly lecture to them about the sector's natural restructuring. Albert A. Frink, the nation's first manufacturing czar, dismisses their concerns over the recently passed CAFTA as the product of "a misinformation campaign," and refuses to take their currency concerns to the top levels of the administration (See Getting To Know You).

Meanwhile, the NAM, which has, to its credit, called on the administration to take more forceful action against China's currency policy, views smaller manufacturers' concerns on trade policy as "not realistic" for the association to take up.

Reader Reply

NAM Responds
As for the manufacturing recovery, yes, there's growth. But compared with previous manufacturing recoveries, only one other has been slower.

Finally, these leaders are truly out of touch if they believe that the law of comparative advantage of nations alone is setting the pace or shaping the outcome of U.S. manufacturing's restructuring. Making that case, among others, is Nucor CEO Dan DiMicco, who has launched a grassroots effort and held town hall meetings throughout the U.S. to promote policies that address unfair trade and currency practices. With the meetings, he hopes as well to rally others to combat the lack of leadership on these, and other, challenges facing U.S. manufacturing. Speaking at the recent IW SMART/mfg conference, DiMicco stressed that he's looking beyond partisan politics -- giving Sens. Hillary Clinton, D.-N.Y., (He's not the only one I've heard favorably mention her.) and Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., nods of support -- and beyond existing organizations for ways to force the current leadership to acknowledge and address these complex issues.

Let's hope DiMicco's efforts spur our leaders to reevaluate their current policies. Then together we can heal the rift, address the challenges and move forward with a broad-based and accelerated U.S. manufacturing recovery.

Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.

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