President-elect: focus on the domestic supply chain not trade agreements to grow manufacturing

By Bart Taylor | Aug 01, 2016

Aerospace & Electronics Brewing & Distilling Bioscience & Medical Built Environment Consumer & Lifestyle Energy & Enviro Food & Beverage Industrial & Equipment Supply Chain

Hillary Clinton's nod to Denver's Knotty Tie at the Democratic National Convention -- or was it Neil Borin's Carrot & Gibbs? -- is only the latest example of how manufacturing is influencing the 2016 general election. (Given U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's visit to Knotty Tie last March, which we chronicled, she probably meant the former.)

Of course the sustained posturing from each candidate about manufacturing relates to international trade agreements and their impact on jobs. But like this election, there's nothing conventional about how each views the issue. Candidate Trump could be confused for a pro-labor Democrat, angling to win Rust Belt states by blaming NAFTA and the pending TPP treaty for driving manufacturing jobs -- union jobs -- offshore.

Clinton seems bent on threading the needle and playing both sides, and as a result I can't say today if I understand her position for or against. I can only surmise that in keeping with the craziness of the election, she's aligned more closely with the dependably pro-Republican National Association of Manufacturers than Trump in generally favoring free trade.

Neither, really, articulate a reasonable alternative to the nation's trade agreements or a fix that would actually benefit U.S. manufacturing. And there are clearly better ways to support the American manufacturing resurgence, full on underway, than canceling trade agreements to force companies to reshore jobs or stop sending them overseas, agreements that also open markets to U.S. companies.

The reality is that most are already considering more U.S.-based manufacturing, with good reason. Overseas labor is increasingly expensive. Quality and intellectual property are hard to control. Prototyping takes forever. Bottom line: Companies are simply weary of managing a 10,000-mile supply chain, and won't if they don't have to. The sheen is off. Owning and operating a multinational manufacturing company today if flat-out hard.

Instead, companies are interested in U.S. operations that enable them to tap a wave of new technology from America's R&D engine. They seek to respond in real time to changing consumer tastes here and abroad -- meaning speedier go-to-market outcomes made possible by shorter supply lines including locally sourced raw materials and labor. Yes, labor. A sea change is underway. We're on the front end of a national movement to rediscover manufacturing careers. It's driven in part by manufacturing's new connection with millennials who want to buy locally made beer, food, clothes, skis, bicycles, and electric cars.

Want to engage in a real conversation to advance U.S. manufacturing? Be an advocate for the domestic supply chain so that U.S. manufacturers have everything they need to make things here, including labor. Want more apparel made in America? Rally support for initiatives like the Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing initiative, born right here, to develop cut-and-sew labor infrastructure brands need. Want major brands like Nike and Apple to make more shoes and iPhones in America? Invest in urban skunkworks that incubate technology and skilled labor that connects R&D with manufacturing processes. Start over. Embrace the design-to-manufacturing continuum, not just the design. Help Nike and Apple rediscover domestic manufacturing by reinventing processes and doing it in small batches, here, first.

It's a campaign issue that could actually unite a divided electorate: Embrace manufacturing as a cause célèbre, without vilifying companies for pursuing the resources needed to build quality products alongside growing profits.

As candidate Trump and Clinton allude to reimaging manufacturing, we're doing it. On the heels of the second annual M2 Manufacturing Growth & Financing Conference, we'll convene at the third annual Apparel + Lifestyle Manufacturing Summit this September to connect brands with a growing supply chain.

If you're interested in advancing U.S. manufacturing, and not politics, you'll be with us September 28 in Denver.

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