Rant: Bold Bets Or Old Bets? Manufacturing Summit Fails to Address Jobs

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Jeff Yoders/MetalMiner

Last week, I attended the Atlantic and SiemensBold Bets, billed as a conversation with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and industry leaders about the global marketplace and, as the workforce evolves, how the US is adapting to the challenges and opportunities changes in manufacturing present.

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It’s not the first time we have heard about how building a better workforce, through education that focuses on Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) can help the US compete in the 21st century.

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Is paying for community college a bold bet? Or just an old bet? The Atlantic Washington Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk it over. Photo: Jeff Yoders

Mayor Emanuel was his usual exuberant self, touting his initiatives that support students who go on to the City Colleges, Chicago’s version of community college, where they can get training for those popular STEM fields.

A STEM Job in Every Pot

“You need a 21st century infrastructure to move on education,” Emanuel said. “There’s nothing that China is doing that, on a manufacturing level, we can’t compete and win on.”

While it continues to be difficult for those in the Chicago area such as ArcelorMittal USA, and other US-based producers of steel, to compete with Chinese steelmakers, who are subsidized at the state and national levels, I gave this statement the benefit of the doubt and eagerly looked forward to more details on this bold new vision of Rahmufacturing

“We’ve done two things in advanced manufacturing to compete,” Emanuel continued. “The Ford Motor Co. plant here (on the South Side) added a third shift. And we have sought and secured a digital hub, which Siemens is a part of, in the city schools. The days of making widgets, repetitive motion, are over. The manufacturing jobs of today require at least two years, post-high-school, to understand computing and its role in manufacturing.”

Tech Job Demand vs. Tech Job Supply

Far be it from me to question the logic of Mayor Emanuel, but if my studies of manufacturing supply chains have taught me anything, it’s that creating jobs is a supply side problem. Creating more demand by training more students for the jobs of tomorrow won’t keep those jobs in Chicago… or the US for that matter. It will just mean our best and brightest go elsewhere to find the jobs that they want when there is no supply of them at home.

Adding a third shift at one automotive plant is great, but it’s not exactly making up for all the jobs the area has lost over the last 3 decades. It all has to do with the availability of the materials of the future, meaning, yes, rare earths and renewables. The shifting of research jobs to countries where the most technologically promising materials exist can’t be underestimated. Rare metals are at the heart of green products such as wind turbines and solar panels and the most in-demand products of today, such as smartphones, flat-screen TVs, tablet computers and much of the technology in every new vehicle Ford produces. Especially the Fusion and other hybrid cars.

What Innovators Need

Civic leaders need to be working on the supply side, reducing regulations on small businesses and allowing new manufacturing of cutting edge products here in the Midwest. Older technologies such as paper mills and existing automotive factories are really not bold bets, at all. They’re actually really OLD bets. Ones that haven’t paid off in just as long.

While Emanuel is right when he says, “(the) big challenge with an aging workforce, worldwide, is everybody is looking for the best-trained, best-educated workforce. Having logistics and an available workforce positions us best for the future,” that’s only half of the equation. The environment for jobs and businesses to grow for those graduates to work at needs to be there, too.

Industries such as steel require anti-dumping measures and customs enforcement just as much as they need a well-trained workforce. Ford needs a sustainable supply chain, with redundancy, for all the materials it puts into its products every bit as much as it needs someone smart enough to assemble them.

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Most importantly, small businesses, the engine of innovation in Chicago and the entire nation, need regulations that don’t unfairly penalize them for taking advantage of advanced technologies such as cloud computing and additive manufacturing. I’m looking forward to those bold bets from our civic leaders.

Follow Jeff Yoders on twitter at @jyoders19.

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