First Up -- Get Going

Nov. 15, 2009
Bold, concerted action is needed to put the manufacturing sector back on track.

In October, the U.S. unemployment rate hit 10.2% and the manufacturing sector shed another 61,000 jobs. Since December 2007, manufacturing employment has fallen by 2.1 million, and overall employment has dropped by 8.1 million. U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis calls it "an unacceptable situation." She is absolutely right.

According to an analysis by Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the economy needs to add 127,000 jobs every month just to keep up with population growth. That means, she explains, "the labor market is currently 10.9 million jobs below what is needed to return to the pre-recession unemployment rate." By the end of 2009, we will likely have experienced 24 consecutive months of job loss. Add in jobless workers who have given up looking for work and people who are forced to work part-time because they can't find full-time work to the unemployed, and EPI finds there are a total of 27.4 million workers who are either unemployed or underemployed.

While this crisis continues to unfold, according to David Shepardson of the Detroit News, Ron Bloom, the president's manufacturing czar, told the House Manufacturing Caucus the administration was likely to announce new efforts to boost the manufacturing sector. Shepardson noted that the White House was still working on a manufacturing strategy, and quoted Bloom as admitting he was a "one-man band."

Okay, we get that the economy is a battleship, not a speedboat, and that it takes time to effect change. We get that the Obama team inherited a wreck of an economy and deserves credit for averting a complete economic meltdown. We get that manufacturing generates 12% of the gross domestic product so it won't receive their undivided attention. We get that many of the changes needed to promote manufacturing are structural and can't happen overnight with the stroke of a pen. But to all that, we have one piece of advice: Get going.

According to Alan Tonelson of the U.S. Business & Industry Educational Foundation, the stimulus program has created or saved just 2,500 manufacturing jobs. The Obama administration has spent a lot of political capital and resources on health care reform and climate change. Those are hugely important issues. But for now and the foreseeable future, Job 1 for this administration is jobs. More specifically, promoting the creation of private-sector jobs, not public-sector jobs that can't be supported long term by a debt-ridden government. If you want to magnify the effects of your economic investments, manufacturing is a great place to start. Get going.

Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, complains, "Manufacturing must be the jobs engine that drives us out of the recession, but Washington is sitting on its hands while China and our other competitors in Asia and Europe invest heavily in clean energy and revitalizing their industrial sectors." Paul says the nation should be "investing in infrastructure, balancing trade, leveraging tax dollars to create jobs in America, reinvesting in education, research and development and freeing up capital for businesses." Get going.

This administration must clearly articulate a long-term strategy for reviving American manufacturing and take immediate steps to help all facets of the manufacturing community. To date, the discussion of manufacturing has been piecemeal and muted. If Ron Bloom is a staff of one, use some of the stimulus funds to get him help -- lots of it. We don't need another invisible manufacturing czar -- the Bush administration tried that and it wasn't a big success. There are plenty of smart, energetic people with manufacturing experience looking for work. Hire them and put them to work. Get going.

Steve Minter is IW's chief editor. He is based in Cleveland.

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