By Brian J. Hogan
Reportedly, an economic recovery has begun, and the Great Recession is grinding to an end—in fact, it’s over. Reportedly, manufacturing is leading the way, with steady expansion taking place in manufacturing employment and manufacturing output. Perhaps.
But remember the old joke: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" Well, with a recovery like this, who needs a recession? No matter what we hear from the jovial talking heads that populate television screens, and the inhabitants of editorial pages, times are still difficult, and lots of people are hurting. Are things better than they were in 2009? Yes. But seriously folks, that’s not saying much.
Although, without question, manufacturing is looking up, manufacturing can’t pull the entire economy forward; and without a general recovery, the positive (though limited) trends in manufacturing can’t be sustained.
It’s my contention that fear limits business investment. And when a wandering editor asks questions of manufacturing people around and about the US, it’s clear that they are afraid of what might be coming up. Too many manufacturing professionals seem like sailors on an oceangoing vessel, traveling with one eye to the horizon, expecting to see a storm front moving toward them. On a ship, in that situation, you keep the hatches secured and the vessel ready for trouble. In manufacturing, and industry generally, in dicey circumstances the logical procedure is to purchase equipment only very carefully, keep cash in the bank, and be ready to shut down very quickly if trouble comes. Overall, this situation is not one that leads on to success.
If we are to see a vigorous expansion of economic activity and unequivocal expansion in manufacturing, managers in all sorts of companies need to have positive expectations of what time will bring to their firms over the next few years. Surely it’s not controversial to say that, to create such positive views, federal and state governments have got to get their spending under control, and be publicly, very visibly, supportive of business operations and business investment.
Admittedly, there seems to be some recognition of the need to be supportive of industry on the part of our political class. At least one does, occasionally, hear friendly noises from the politicians. Perhaps they are slowly moving to a place that will encourage general economic recovery, and manufacturing in particular. The pace is, however, inadequate. We need to say to them, "Faster, please, much faster."
Everyone can argue over this and that, but the first step toward a truly strong economic recovery is to establish an atmosphere of trust. If industry fears the government, the recovery, such as it is, will continue to be tentative and fragile.
This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.