Leave politics behind to find the formula for manufacturing success

By Bart Taylor | Mar 14, 2016

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"I am really, totally committed to bringing back manufacturing." -- Hillary Clinton, campaigning in Ohio

Most every candidate running for president has pledged to support U.S. manufacturing. Apparently one thing we agree on is that too much has been lost by outsourcing so much manufacturing in so little time. Ask consumers, businesses, you name it: We want to make more things here.

We don't agree on how, though. Leaders of both political parties blame agreements like NAFTA and the pending TPP for emptying the cupboard of U.S. jobs, presumably because voters do. But America's most influential manufacturing organization, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), sees it the other way.

Jay Timmons, CEO of NAM, believes free trade agreements work for manufacturers and the U.S. I've heard him acknowlegde the difficulty of the issue, but suggest that the positive trade balance we enjoy with most treaty-bound partners makes them worthwhile. Nevertheless, NAM disagrees with much of its rank and file. Free trade is a non-starter for candidates running in Ohio, or Michigan, or Pennsylvania, states where national elections now pivot.

Politics aside, there's a growth formula we can agree on, one shaped not in the political sphere but of course by industry, by the companies already leading a manufacturing revival and by lessons being learned. It's not to say that elements of a campaign framework aren't helpful or relevant. Some are. Hillary Clinton suggests we 'Expand access to capital, especially for smaller manufacturers,' a goal we agree with. We'll host the second annual manufacturing growth and investor conference in Denver this summer -- with a Utah version to follow. Growth manufacturers need money.

In addition to capital, our simple blueprint would:

1. Acknowledge that in most of America, manufacturing looks different that it did generations ago -- and respond accordingly.

Federal Reserve data we published last week provides a roadmap as to where manufacturing is growing fastest. It's an important guidepost as we consider a growth strategy:

A half-dozen or so sectors have reached their all-time peak production levels in the past year, including manufacturing sectors critical to the economies of Colorado, Utah, and much of the West: semiconductors, food, medical equipment, electronics and aerospace equipment.

If you were skeptical this region wasn't at the center of the new manufacturing economy, think again.

2. Connect manufacturers with qualified business partners.

As we reshore jobs and develop new opportunities, the challenge for manufacturers is finding qualified, compatible business partners. Manufacturers need a robust supply chain. In many ways 'business development' means making it easier for manufacturers to find qualified business partners.

I read an analyst last week bemoan the amount of time and energy U.S. industry has invested in studying, building, analyzing, and awarding global supply chains as its domestic counterpart languishes. It's a powerful observation. But the time is right to redouble efforts: U.S. manufacturing is suddenly competitive. A push to develop a world-class domestic supply chain should pay off.

3. Support manufacturers with modern, innovative economic development and marketing.

We're investing millions in training, retraining, and education. In Colorado and Utah, taxpayer dollars are funding infrastructure programs, including high-tech 'advancement' centers. What's also needed is economic development that's well-aligned with manufacturing, including public/private partnerships to incubate and accelerate manufacturing companies in food and beverage, lifestyle and consumer goods, and other high-growth industries.

They dot the lancscape in the tech space. But technology's most glorious manifestations are brought to life by manufacturers. Think Apple.

Capital. Connectivity. Training and business development. A simple plan that even the most ideologically opposed observers can agree on.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.