Manufacturing took center stage -- literally -- Wednesday at a Mitt Romney rally in Cleveland, as the GOP presidential candidate promised local manufacturers that he would cut business taxes, repeal Obamacare and crack down on China's alleged currency manipulation if he wins the election.
Flanked by local business leaders such as Timken Co. (IW 500/197) Chairman Tim Timken Jr., Romney moderated a raucous town-hall-style discussion about manufacturing that took place, appropriately, on the factory floor of American Spring Wire Co., a maker of valve and spring wire found in vehicles, agricultural equipment and appliances.
In his opening remarks, Romney noted that the company has been hurt by the loss of customers to overseas competition, and he seized the opportunity to reiterate his promise to get tough on China.
"[China has] artificially held down the value of their currency," Romney said. "And by doing that, the prices of their products are artificially low. And when their prices are low and then they compete with our manufacturers, our guys go out of business and people lose jobs.
"And that's why one thing I will do from Day 1 is label China a currency manipulator. They must not steal jobs in an unfair way."
'You're Not Alone Worrying About Obamacare'
Romney also seized every opportunity to take a swipe at President Obama's policies, which, he asserted, have discouraged business investment and stunted the economic recovery.
Elizabeth Barry, CEO of Delta Systems Inc., a Streetsboro, Ohio-based manufacturer of switches, electronics and wireless control systems, told Romney that the shortage of skilled workers in the labor force is at the top of her list of concerns, along with commodity prices and the potential impact of Obama's universal health care legislation.
In response, Romney said: "You're not alone worrying about Obamacare."
Romney cited a McKinsey & Co. study that found that 30% of U.S. companies are considering dropping employee health care coverage because of it.
"One thing we're going to have to do if we want to get small businesses hiring again is repeal Obamacare and replace it with real reform," he added.
Morgan McIntosh, owner of AMFM Inc., a small Willoughby, Ohio-based manufacturer of braid bands for metal hose, told Romney that economic and regulatory uncertainty is his biggest worry. And like Barry, McIntosh asserted that the skills gap weighs on him as well.
"A lot of companies in this area have a hard time finding qualified people that want to work in manufacturing," McIntosh said. "Everybody wants to work on Wall Street, to go work for Apple."
Romney responded that "in terms of certainty, we will not only repeal and replace Obamacare, we'll keep your taxes from getting higher and higher."
"Small business is crushed by taxes," Romney added.
Romney addressed the skills gap early in the discussion. Like most of the business leaders who took part in the panel, Romney lamented that some 23 million people are looking for work, "and yet we have millions of jobs that are open that can't be filled because people don't have the skills they need for those jobs."
Not surprisingly, Romney asserted that Obama doesn't have the answer.
"We have 47 different federal-government training programs, and they report to eight different agencies," Romney said. "They spend $18 billion on these programs. But too often they don't match the needs of our people.
"So I want to take those dollars and send them back to Ohio, or each state, so they can fashion the programs to meet the needs of their own workers."
Romney added that he would like to create "personal re-employment accounts," which job seekers could use "to get the training they feel they need for the job of their future."
Romney, who asserted that the United States has lost 582,000 manufacturing jobs over the past four years, repeated his campaign mantra that the nation can't afford four more years of Obama. However, some of the most strident criticism of the president came from the panel of manufacturers.
Timken said the regulatory uncertainty engendered by Obama "dissuades us from investing here." But his disdain for the president's policies paled in comparison with that of Mike Gordon, owner of Cleveland-based metal fabricator Tendon Manufacturing.
"When it comes to government regulation, what some people don't understand is when you have somebody as anti-business as [Obama] is, it goes through his entire organization," Gordon said. "Regulators will come in and treat you like you're some criminal and they're trying to catch something.
"We all want clean water. We all want clean air. We all want safe environments. That's what we're in business for."
Gordon praised Romney for his business acumen, and asserted that the notion of Obama "trying to explain business to Mitt Romney is like me trying to give golf lessons to Tiger Woods."