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The Strangest of Years

Oct. 9, 2020
In those idle gaps between diaper changes and feeding schedules and naps, I’ve fallen into a rather heavy meditation on the future.

I have spent the last three weeks stumbling through the great unslept abyss of paternity leave. Somewhere in this blur of joy and exhaustion, in those idle gaps between diaper changes and feeding schedules and naps, I’ve fallen into a rather heavy meditation on the future. Which is a natural thing to do, I suppose, when welcoming a new human to life. But it seems sharpened this time, magnified perhaps by the fact that I’m not just welcoming this kid to life, but welcoming him to life in the middle of a pandemic, to a world filled with unknowns and uncertainties, with a great wave of social and political upheaval unfolding around us.

So, my thoughts, whenever they are sensibly connected, are on the future. The future of the world and of the country and (because I can’t help myself) of the manufacturing industry that keeps it all together. All of which seems to be coming to a head quite suddenly.

I am writing this note on Sept. 26—with the baby sleep-squeaking in my lap—just a few short days from two events that may define the future of U.S. manufacturing, or at least set its course for the foreseeable future (which admittedly isn’t that far).

One of them, of course, is the first presidential debate, which will officially kick off what I expect to be an especially difficult election cycle. The debate will be long over by the time anyone reads this, I realize, but my anticipation for it is still worth recording. I am hoping—desperately hoping—that it will reveal some significant insights on how each candidate will take on the challenges faced by this industry in real, concrete terms.

We have the start of this process here. Ryan Secard’s cover story for this issue (The Candidates, the Issues and the Future of Manufacturing) breaks down the basics of each candidate’s position and analyzes historical actions and postures to supplement what is currently lacking about manufacturing in their formal platforms. It provides a neat kind of preview of what we can likely expect from either Biden or President Trump over the next four years.

In a way, it’s almost a refreshing perspective of the world—in perhaps the strangest year in living memory, Ryan’s description of each candidate’s agenda is shockingly… normal. It’s almost exactly what one would expect from our usual political dichotomy: One side is expected to expand the private sphere, one to expand the public; one side is expected to break from normal and global alliances, one to rebuild and reinforce them. And both sides lack a clear or effective plan to close the skills gap.

Which is to say, we’re facing the same choice between the same Republican/ Democratic perspectives and economic philosophies as any normal election year. There’s only one problem with that—this isn’t a normal election year.

And that brings me to the second event on the horizon: Manufacturing Day.

Short of a real government-backed plan to improve trade education and build the high-skill workforce we need, Manufacturing Day remains our best tool to secure the future of manufacturing. Every year, plants across the country open their doors, roll out the carpets and host endless busloads of students to introduce them to the wonders and potential of this industry and to put some of them on a path that could forever change their lives.

But not this year.

In most cases, the best we can hope for in 2020 are virtual events, maybe Zoom tours, and as much excitement as can possibly be built for students in such settings. Which is to say, in this strangest of years, when we need to engage the future of talent more than ever, we are less able to do so than ever before.

Because this is not a normal year. Because the world has changed around us, and old strategies and old plans just don’t cut it anymore. We’re venturing into a new epoch that requires bold action, bold ideas and a clear vision. And that, above all, is what I’m hoping to see in the coming days.

Because, staring down at this fresh new person deep in unimaginable dreams, I daydream of this new epoch and what this future will bring. My hope is that, step by step, debate by debate, vote by vote, a clearer picture of it will begin to develop and that we—and this critical industry—will emerge stronger and smarter than we began.  

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