In America today, truth has become a particularly slippery asset.
This goes beyond the usual political hot topics, cutting deep into the fabric of basic reality. Because, despite our unfettered access to unlimited troves of data, statistics, forums, and facts on the subject, finding a firm understanding of the concrete truth about the state of things can be an elusive, impossible endeavor.
Manufacturing is a prime example of this.
Ask anyone outside the industry about the state of manufacturing in America, and they will likely tell you that it's long dead. And who can blame them? After decades of news coverage of the fall of Flints and Detroits, or watching local plants shutter and rust, or the constant noise about trade imbalances and Chinese imports, it seems like a solid conclusion to draw.
Ask a politician the same question and you'll likely get exactly the opposite response. Their eyes will glaze over in hope, they will talk about all the new jobs added in the last report, they will talk about the hundreds of thousands of openings left to fill, they will conclude that manufacturing is healthy and well and on the rise.
The truth is in there somewhere, of course, mixed between these two contradictory perceptions. Understanding that truth is vital—it's key to any progress the industry hopes to make, key to any future for American manufacturing.
This is a problem for Jay Timmons. As president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Timmons is responsible for communicating the true state of manufacturing to the decision-makers in Washington DC to ensure that the policies and initiatives they undertake match the needs and realities of the nation's workers. So he, arguably more than most in the industry, absolutely needs to understand.
To do that, he is about to do something rather interesting.
Today, Timmons is leaving his DC bubble to meet with manufacturing leaders and workers in neutral territory: just outside Detroit at a pizza shop in Southfield, Michigan. It is the first stop of what is shaping up to be a full tour of the Midwest—the heart of the heart of America's manufacturing legacy.
The meeting, Timmons says, isn't to deliver a speech or check out the latest equipment or investments at plants in the area. His plan is just to listen, to get the real story of manufacturing straight from the manufacturers themselves. In the progress, he hopes to take home a bit of that elusive truth.
In preparation for this kickoff event, Timmons and I met to talk about his plans and how this endeavor will help feed back to his primary job as lead advocate for the industry. In other words: how listening will turn to action.
IndustryWeek: I guess the first question is why are you why are you doing this? Why are you holding these talks, and why are you doing them in such an informal setting?
Jay Timmons: First of all, they're not talks. They're actually more listening sessions to be able to engage with folks in areas of the country where there's an intense focus on manufacturing or where manufacturing once was thriving and is trying to revitalize.
For us in Washington, we talk about policy issues and we work with the administration and with Congress to get laws and regulations enacted to make manufacturers more competitive. But in the end, manufacturing is really about the people of manufacturing—the people who have contributed so mightily to the success of manufacturing throughout decades and centuries of our nation's history and made us is the strong and exceptional country that we are today.
We [NAM] represent manufacturers all across the country; we're the voice of manufacturers. I speak on behalf of manufacturers of manufacturing workers, so I think it's very important to make sure that from time to time there is a check in with those very people who are making manufacturing so successful, and who are are making our country stronger.
I'm excited to be able to sit down with these folks to get their perspective on how we are doing as a country, how we are doing in terms of meeting their expectations for growing manufacturing and also inspiring the next generation to want to be part of that manufacturing workforce.
IW: Are you going in expecting to hear anything specific from them or expecting to learn perspectives on specific issues?
JT: Absolutely. I think Americans have proven that we're not a monolithic people. We are very diverse country. And honestly, I think that's what makes us so strong. The manufacturing workforce is no different. The manufacturing workforce is very diverse, there are a lot of ideas and a lot of opinions. In fact, a lot of their ideas that haven't even been considered could help us be even more successful.
I want to hear from the folks at all levels of manufacturing. I also want to hear from community leaders about their ideas, what they're doing to strengthen manufacturing, and how they need us at the federal level to partner with them on many of their great ideas—getting that perspective and understanding what the expectations are and being able to synthesize those and relate those to folks in Washington.
IW: That's the real question, though: How will you take this back home and turn it into action? How is this going to inform what you do next:
JT: It will certainly influence me and it will inform me. And so in my conversations—whether they be with members of Congress, members of the United States Senate, members the administration, cabinet secretaries, even the president or vice president—this will inform all of those discussions.
But I think it's actually broader than that. This is also about breaking through a narrative and perhaps even a stereotype of very different Americas that are being portrayed in our news media right now.
Look, I'm from Chillicothe, Ohio; I'm from the heartland of this country. I'm from ground zero of the manufacturing might of our country and I know the story that I grew up with.
I want to be able to refresh that story; I want to be able to relate to the individuals who are making decisions on behalf of the manufacturing workforce what I'm hearing back home and how the actions of Congress and the administration are resonating with the folks they are purporting to help.
This is not something I'm unfamiliar with. I have the great fortune and opportunity to spend time with manufacturers almost every day of my life in this current job. But this is a little different. This is this is not a very structured tour around a manufacturing facility, it's not a PowerPoint presentation. This is just sitting down with the folks who are making the things that contribute to America's might and success everyday their own hands.
That vantage point is extraordinarily important for the men and women who are making the laws and the regulations that impact our successful as a country.