Manufacturing Moves to Center Stage

Nov. 10, 2011
Public-policy leaders are taking yet another look at manufacturing's importance to the U.S. economy. This time, let's make sure they get it right.

Starting my second stint leading IndustryWeek, I'm heartened that manufacturing's importance to the U.S. economy once again is on the public-policy agenda. It gives us true believers an opportunity to state our case that the idea of a "new economy," one driven by some new, breakthrough industry, does not mean that manufacturing is any less important to the nation's economy. It'd be nice if we could convince the public-policy makers, economists and business leaders that the United States -- and any developed economy -- must have a strong, resilient manufacturing sector as its foundation.

When I left IW in June 2006, too many leaders viewed as inevitable manufacturing's continued "erosion." They considered the decline a natural next step of the U.S. economy's evolution. China loomed large. Offshore outsourcing boomed. And the financial sector moved to the forefront as the latest new U.S. economic engine.

It was a scenario we'd seen played out before. In the '80s, the services sector was declared to have overtaken the manufacturing sector in importance. Instead, manufacturers were a part of that growth, expanding their businesses to become service providers and problem solvers, not just makers of product. In the '90s, information technology was all the rage -- but manufacturers embraced IT, deploying it in their factories, employing it in their supply chains and designing it into their products. In the '00s, globalization was to put the final nail in the coffin of U.S. manufacturing -- but manufacturers embraced globalization, with the smart ones carefully outsourcing production to offshore locations, while expanding into new international markets.

Each of the "new economy" eras has been an opportunity for manufacturing companies in mature industries to reinvent themselves, and leading U.S. manufacturers have done so. Too bad many of our public-policy leaders don't yet understand.

Which brings us to today. Time has allowed for some earlier assumptions about the U.S. economy's evolution to play out, and it's not progressing the way many people thought it would. The financial sector's growth has been exposed as a chimera; the value it seemingly created has disappeared. (I wonder: Is it a coincidence the degree to which the financial bubble mirrors the earlier generation's Internet bubble?) The word "reshoring" has entered business leaders' lexicon. And China's destiny as the workshop of the world doesn't seem so inevitable. These realities are prompting many prominent people to speak out about the need for a strategy to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.

I've been in this business long enough to know that this recent attention on manufacturing's economic importance can be as short-lived as the many "manufacturing renaissances" that preceded it. However, I'm thrilled to be leading a media group, which from its beginnings as Iron Age and Steel magazines, heralded manufacturing's ongoing transformation and stood steadfast in its belief in and support of U.S. manufacturing. Through the years, few organizations have been as consistent as IW has in its message about manufacturing's economic importance, as well as in fulfilling its mission to find and share the leadership approaches and management strategies that strengthen manufacturers.

Best of all, as the new editor of IW, I will join with other manufacturing stalwarts in the effort to once and for all convince public-policy leaders that manufacturing still drives the U.S. economy. I hope you'll join me.

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