Retooling America’s Manufacturing Sector

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 15, 2013

Over 50 years ago, you could hear the humming of the machines coming from Rhode Island’s factories.  The piercing sound of factory whistles would rip through the surrounding neighborhood, alerting all that a shift was ending and the next would soon begin.  

Weaving cotton into textiles came from mills scattered throughout northern Rhode Island which translated into work opportunities for all.  Traveling from the City of Providence, the CapitalCity to the City of Pawtucket, the birthplace of the nation’s Industrial Revolution, through Central Falls and up through the City of Woonsocket, you will discover that once we were the hub for the manufacturing of fabric for the nation’s second world war effort. For those factories filling three shifts, meant thousands of workers working in these mills, giving them a place to earn an honorable living. Blue collar workers fueled the nation’s economy as they bought homes, automobiles, as well as providing the  resources to send their children to colleges and universities. “Made in America” was a lifestyle and we were proud of it. 

Today, there is silence in many of these mills and for many of them, a new identity as these same factories have been transformed into artist lofts and studios or renovated for condo living.    For those factories still in operation, many of these manufacturers have decreased the number of shifts, thus reducing their workforce and ultimately impacting many of the local small businesses, leading to closures because of lack of customers.  Simply put, it’s the domino affect and the last piece might fall without Congressional action.   

Manufacturing Goes Over Seas

Over this decade, America’s manufacturing sector has crumbled giving way to China and third world countries to pick up the ball.  Drastically lower wages enable Chinese manufacturers to make cheaper goods sold to consumers for less then it would cost for the items to be made by an American-based manufacturing company. Along with lower wages, Chinese manufacturers face less environmental and safety regulations, taxes and have subsidized operational costs.  Imbalanced trade agreements are not favorable to American manufacturers who are losing the “economic race”, thus resulting in a loss of profits and employee lay offs.  Many of the nation’s manufacturers are being forced out of business, permanently closing their doors in cities and towns throughout this nation.       

A shopping trip always leaves me very unsettled about the flood of cheap imported productions into our nation.  Lower price tags on goods made outside of this country are enticing, but how often is quality been sacrificed for price?  We’ve  become a country of ‘mediocraty’ where its “good enough”.  Imported products ultimately impacts America’s children, who are now less likely to experience the prosperity that their parents once achieved because of the country’s manufacturing economy, which has now begun to falter and tilt to a service economy.     

Shelves of big box stores are packed with electronics and appliances, with most of these items stamped “Made in China.” Your local department store filled with discount bins and clothing racks are certainly not immune from this labeling.  The next time you are shopping, examine the country of origin for that product you are holding.  You guessed it, clothing, dishes, pots and pans, picture frames, all made from Chinese manufacturing companies. 

 Manufacturing Plants Sitting Idle

 As America’s manufacturing sector is decimated by the Chinese along with our communities losing higher paying manufacturing jobs, only lower paying service sector jobs will become available to low and middle income Americans. US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages show that the average Rhode Island manufacturing job pays $50,823 annually and that there are currently 40,341 employees directly related to manufacturing. Six years ago, over 52,000 Rhode Islanders worked in the manufacturing sector.

Currently, cities and towns now see manufacturing plants sitting idle and empty or underutilized, often times reducing their tax base. This continued trend will not allow for a balanced economy.  Rhode Island can ill afford to lose its existing manufacturing base, ultimately thousands of people to the state’s unemployment statistics.

 

 Once upon a time, “Made in America” stamped on products gave the buyer an assurance of quality.  Government recalls protected our citizens from products that might harm or kill.  As we are increasingly aware, “Made in China” does not always ensure quality (such as pharmaceuticals, tooth paste and defective tires) because of poor Chinese governmental oversight.  In 2007, newspapers reported that some exported toys “Made in China” were produced with high levels of lead paint, being sent to tens of thousands of toy stores throughout the nation, putting our nation’s children at risk. At this time, even lack of product quality control even allowed poisoned pet food manufactured by Chinese companies to be shipped to America, killing thousands of cats and dogs.   

 Resuscitating the Nation’s Manufacturing Sector

With the kickoff of the 113th Congressional Session last month, it is crucial that the Democratic and Republican politicians thoroughly debate this nation’s trade policies and come up with viable bipartisan solutions to reenergizing America’s manufacturing sector.

Most importantly, what steps will President Barrack H. Obama working with a divided Congress take to ensure that American well-paying jobs do not vanish in the global economy?   On Tuesday evening, the President, addressing a joint session of Congress, gave us some clues in his State of the Union speech about retooling America’s manufacturing sector. 

Although the President touched on immigration reform and border security, early child education, clean energy technologies, the war in Afghanistan, and confronting gun violence, he called for fixing the nation’s aging infrastructure, along with launching manufacturing hubs, where businesses partner with the Department of Defense and Energy, to create high tech-jobs.  He looked to Congress to create a network of 15 of these hubs to “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is “Made in America.”   If Congress blocks this economic initiative the defiant President plans to use executive orders to create three hubs on his own.

Meanwhile, redesigning the nation’s high schools to enable graduates to meet the demands of a high-tech economy can only help manufacturing companies, the noted President Obama.  Schools would be rewarded to develop partnerships with colleges and employers to create classes that teach science, technology, engineering and math skills needed by the nation’s manufacturing sector, he said.

In the Ocean State, as part of his ongoing work to jump start Rhode Island’s economy back, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI)  at North East Knitting Company in Pawtucket, unveiled another version of his Make It In America Manufacturing Act to target federal investment in manufacturing, helping create jobs, generate public-private partnerships, and support small business growth. (This legislative proposal is similar to one that he introduced two years ago.)

“When they’re competing on a level playing field, American workers outperform competitors across the world,” said Cicilline. Noting that Rhode Island’s economy was built on the strength of its manufacturing industry, the Congressman who represents the 1st Congressional District, tapping into feedback from his Ocean State constituents and the Brookings Institution, crafted the legislative proposal to give manufacturer the resources needed to compete successfully, grow jobs, and get the state and national economy moving again.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has introduced the companion measure in the Senate.  If signed into law, Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act would create a competitive incentive grant program, jointly administered through the Departments of Labor and Commerce. States or regional partnerships may apply for the program, and successful applicants will receive grant funds to help implement innovative Manufacturing Enhancement Strategies. 

Meanwhile, funds can be used to create a revolving loan fund, to issue low interest loans to manufacturers, or to provide grants to non-profits, including community colleges, helping manufacturers to address the skills gap that hinders growth in the manufacturing sector.  The loan funds could also be used to increase exports and domestic supply chain opportunities, improve energy efficiency.  Also, the loans could be used to retool and expand existing manufacturing facilities to compete in the 21st century economy.

Seeking a Bipartisan Compromise

The clocks cannot be turned back.  The global economy is here to stay.  Clearly, Congressional gridlock must end by federal lawmakers seeking legislative solutions to making the nation’s manufacturing sector more competitive in a global economy.  Democratic and GOP lawmakers must hammer out bipartisan solutions to enable the nation’s manufacturing companies to fairly compete worldwide and to ensure that trade polices are balanced and fair for all.  

Many of President Obama’s repackaged proposals (reintroduced in his hour long State of the Union speech) and even Cicilline’s manufacturing proposal were derailed in the last Congress in a Republican-controlled House, where GOP Tea Party members practiced anti-compromise politics.  It becomes crucial for the President’s legislative agenda along with Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act, to not be bottled up in the House but truly debated.

With the dust settling from November’s elections, the America public has sent both the President and Congress a strong, clear message that is: work together to fix the nation’s sagging economy. Do the people’s work and leave your political bickering outside the House and Senate Chambers.  Compromise and keep manufacturing in America.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical, even business issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

 

           

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