Keeping manufacturing alive innovates technology

Some of the highest paying jobs in America are created by companies that make things. Manufacturing has been a mainstay in the U.S. economy since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Some say that manufacturing is passé, that technology is the future, and that it doesn’t matter if manufacturing dries up and blows away.

The flaw in those arguments (actually there are numerous flaws) is that one of the biggest users of technology today is manufacturers.

Modern manufacturing operations are the showcase for innovative technology. Gone are the days, for instance, when hundreds of laborers engaged in the back-breaking activity of wrestling with logs in a forest products plant. A typical worker in those facilities today is more of a technician than a log wrestler. State-of-the-art machinery moves the logs, determines the best possible value that can be extracted from them, and turns them into profitable products. The same is true of many industries, such as steel, durable goods, petroleum refining, and chemical manufacturing. Technology is the driving force that has increased productivity in American manufacturing, which has kept us a global leader in manufacturing output.

As noted above, advancements in technology have led directly to a diminution of manufacturing employment in the U.S.  Many Americans believe that most of the manufacturing job losses – – and there have been millions in the last few decades – – are due to plants closing in the U.S. and moving to less-developed countries. Certainly there has been some of that phenomenon occurring, particularly with low-technology industries. But, until this point, the majority of manufacturing job losses has been due more to productivity advances through technology than out-sourcing manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.

That may change soon. Government policies can have a major impact on any industry, and manufacturing is no exception.
Several issues pending in Congress could accelerate the departure of manufacturing industries and jobs from the U.S.  Enactment of “cap and trade” legislation tops the list. If energy costs rise exponentially for manufacturers in the U.S., companies will undoubtedly look more favorably at countries that do not artificially raise their cost of doing business by raising their energy costs.

Another federal issue that will impact the future of American manufacturing is the “card check” legislation pending in Congress. Some manufacturers work with a union agreement. Others do not. Manufacturers are not generally concerned about the wages involved with a collective bargaining agreement. They already have some of the highest wage scales in the private sector. What troubles them are the voluminous work rules that come with a union contract.

These contract requirements inhibit the productivity advancements necessary for manufacturing to survive in the modern world.

The current health care debate also has the full attention of U.S. manufacturers. The vast majority of our domestic manufacturers provide quality health insurance coverage for their workers. Proposals in Congress would mandate that coverage and possibly tax manufacturers for providing it.

The manufacturing community is very wary of government-imposed mandates from past experience involving many issues. Limiting their ability to design quality, affordable insurance plans for their workers-and possibly making them pay taxes to provide it-will not make them more likely to keep or expand their operations in the U.S.

If America is to remain a world leader in making things, government officials should step lightly when considering policies that could make more of our best jobs leave our shores. Improving the quality of education, encouraging more research and development, and maintaining job-friendly tax policies will help keep manufacturing jobs in America.

Passing some of the proposals pending in Congress will definitely have the opposite effect.


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