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US Manufacturing: There’s Something Happening Here

June 25, 2018
What it is ain’t exactly clear...

These are strange times for U.S. manufacturing.

On one hand, it’s possible that the sector is in absolutely fantastic shape. The numbers certainly suggest as much—we’re currently at 21 straight months of growth in the industry, with U.S. manufacturing vacancy rates at just about a third of the 10-year average.

At the same time—as two of our features in this issue explore—new manufacturing plants are suddenly sprouting up seemingly everywhere, while the regulations that many in the industry have long-argued stunt growth are being slowly peeled away.

All of which seems terrific.

However, it’s also possible that the sector is in deep trouble. Or at least dangling over the edge of trouble. The industry has found itself facing an array of potentially disastrous issues: a looming threat of a trade war, inconsistent tariff arrangements, a skills gap that shows no sign of narrowing, and thick inscrutability from the policymakers shaping the future, just to name a few.

This adds up to a lot of chaos and a lot of uncertainty to bear for an industry that depends on stability and predictability to thrive.

The two sides here paint a difficult path for the decision-makers in the industry. Do you bank on the momentum and the anecdotal signs of growth? Or do you rewrite all your strategies to account for the contingencies of the potential threats?

The optimist in me wants to favor the numbers, to follow the tide of all these companies investing in U.S. production. It’s tempting, for instance, to link our “Regulation Rollback” and “Factory Building Frenzy” features together—surely all of these new plants are the direct result of deregulation, right? So the new policies and actions taken by the Trump administration are spurring growth and opportunity everywhere, right?

But, no. That’s storytelling.

The truth is, most of these groundbreakings are the end result of multiyear expansion plans that likely have little to do with the policies. It’s still far too early in this whole process to determine efficacy for anything in any conclusive way. Just like it’s too early to tell how international trade spats will resolve or how our efforts on training will affect the skills deficit.

No, there’s no clear path on either side of this.

So we’re left with this original dilemma: Everything might be totally fine, and it might not.

There’s no resolution... but there is a way forward.

Look back at the regulatory rollback story, in which Senior Editor Laura Putre recounts Cambridge Engineering’s response to the rollback of a series of health, safety, and worker protection regulations. President Marc Braun’s quote on the matter is perfect:

To me, this says everything we need to know about the industry.

It says, the way forward has little to do with inertial energy of past success. It has little to do with shifting policies or irregular baseline rules. And it has everything to do with integrity.

It hasn’t come easy, but the overall manufacturing culture today is centered squarely on the workers, on valuing the collective powers of the team to overcome challenges, to drive efficiencies, to solve problems, to find success regardless of the circumstances.

As long as Marc Braun’s attitude remains—that a focus on excellence and a thriving workforce beats all else—U.S. manufacturing will weather any fight. Throw all the policy “pipe bombs” you want at it, an industry that stands by its principles and with its workers will remain standing.

This is a certainty I can rest on in these strange times. Whether we’re booming or dangling over a cliff, I have faith in the integrity of the industry to carry us through.

About the Author

Travis Hessman | Content Director

Travis Hessman is the editor-in-chief and senior content director for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He began his career as an intern at IndustryWeek in 2001 and later served as IW's technology and innovation editor. Today, he combines his experience as an educator, a writer, and a journalist to help address some of the most significant challenges in the manufacturing industry, with a particular focus on leadership, training, and the technologies of smart manufacturing.

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