Manufacturing Media Network Since 2013.

5 takeaways from a week in manufacturing data

By Bart Taylor October 7, 2019, 08:34 am MDT

1. Is manufacturing dead or a leading indicator for the economy? 

Whenever the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) from the Institute for Supply Management lands under 50, as it did last week, manufacturing naysayers proclaim the sector irrelevant or worse.

This time around pundits are struggling to explain how manufacturing also seems to be a bellwether for the rest of the economy.

"The weakness in manufacturing has now infected the services side of the U.S. economy, which makes up about 80% of it," sniffed Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer with Bleakley Advisory Group, in a note to clients. 

In other words, the U.S. economy goes as manufacturing goes. 

Manufacturing's demise was always overstated. It's a strategic sector and getting more so.

2. Manufacturers are creating jobs. They can't find employees.

Manufacturing has an employment crisis -- just not the kind reflected in Friday's jobs report released by the Labor Department that showed U.S. manufacturing losing 2,000 net jobs in the quarter.

How would the graph below look with an additional half-million employees in jobs that remain unfilled? Employment would look a lot different if companies could fill open jobs. 

3. Trump's tariff plan needs a strategy.

President Trump's trade plan hasn't yet panned out. CNBC reporting last week summed up the consensus among analysts:

Eric Winograd, senior economist at AllianceBernstein, said in a note Friday that the president's trade war strategies appeared to be in part responsible for the slowdown.

"A big part of the story for the economy as a whole, of course, is the trade war. We can see that in the payrolls figures too," Winograd wrote. "Manufacturing has been the hardest hit industry by trade policy and, not coincidentally, manufacturing employment has suffered."

At some point soon, short-term pain must be framed by long-term gain. 

4. American brands have gotten themselves into the tariff pickle by investing in offshore manufacturing.

Trump's strategy-less tariffs get tarred and feathered, but the crisis in supply-chain management -- in making things offshore in China -- isn't Trump's fault. American companies have made China a manufacturing superpower. (Manufacturers aren't the only U.S. companies beholding to China.)

It was inevitable that tariffs would be used to change China's behavior and protect the interests of American companies and workers. The status quo wasn't working. It's unfortunate that its intended beneficiaries are suffering given the shortcomings of Trump's plan.

But this is an industry problem that companies, not government, must fix. Collectively and collaboratively, brands and manufacturers must lead a U.S. production renaissance by investing here, and not in overseas production.

5. Innovation and industry diversity continue to distinguish U.S. manufacturing.

The sector continues to surprise, and much of the good news is related to growth industries shaping a new American industrial character. 

Manufacturing is growing fastest in the West, in state economies with thriving natural food, craft beverage, and value-add industries like aerospace. Innovation is rampant here, even in legacy industries where technology is powering a new wave of engineering, prototyping, and manufacturing solutions. (Read this week's profile of Barber-Nichols.)

There's a race to a new, global-defining manufacturing economy comprised of exciting new industries flashing the tools of Industry 4.0. And it’s winnable. Here in the U.S. 

Step into the fight or step aside.

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

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