UpFront: Something of Value
By Brian J. Hogan
A couple of things are sure bets for 2008. The decision-makers and elite-group members who govern the US will continue to take manufacturing for granted, assuming that low-wage countries will make our cars, steel, medical devices, aircraft—basically everything we now make here—in years to come. And manufacturing in the US will continue to become more productive, more efficient, leaner, and more competitive relative to the rest of the world.
There's a significant disconnect between the folks at the top of the ladder in the US and the people who actually create the nation's wealth. Quite possibly our elite groups consider that wealth is actually produced by bankers, financiers, attorneys, and so forth.
That's not true. In an industrial nation like the US, wealth creation begins with manufacturing, mining, and agriculture (I consider construction a special area of manufacturing). If you dig into it, you'll see that all economic activity orbits around these three arenas, enabling them and providing necessary services to their practitioners.
Possibly the political class doesn't value wealth-producing activities because its members have no experience with such enterprises. Perhaps their expertise lies either in spreading wealth around or consuming it, rather than producing it.
Ah, but isn't that a cruel thing to say! I should be flogged!
Whatever the reason may be, this blind spot is a source of trouble for US manufacturing. Things not valued are neither defended nor nurtured. Decision-makers who consider manufacturing a dirty, low-status business where peasants labor for chump change are not going to fund manufacturing workforce development or manufacturing research, or strive to sustain a healthy manufacturing industrial base.
Perhaps reality is the best hope for manufacturing's future. In the real world, manufacturing truly does matter. As the old joke goes, reality bites.
In southeast Michigan, the decline of GM, Ford, and Chrysler highlights the contribution of manufacturing to general prosperity.The OEMs and their vendors require a skilled, well-paid workforce. Taxes paid by those OEMs and that workforce have paid the freight for the rest of society in southeast Michigan. As manufacturing slows, everyone can see that wealth originates with that activity, not with functions like banking or ambulance chasing. Manufacturing is a most worthy way to spend a life. Manufacturing creates wealth for the societies that embrace and support it, and brings pride to practitioners, who can see the value of their skills in the products they produce. Let's hope that, in this coming year, more of the decision-makers will begin to realize what a prize we have in our manufacturing infrastructure. If they begin to value this tremendous asset, accumulated at great cost over two centuries, perhaps they can find the will necessary to support and defend it.
This article was first published in the January 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.