Manufacturing Industry Needs Education, Not Nostalgia

Invest in Human Capital Through Industrial Training

Economists are nostalgic for the Golden Age of American manufacturing. But times have changed – we must invest in human capital through industrial training to see new growth.

American economists can be as nostalgic as fans re-watching “The Bodyguard” or recalling dozens of New Year’s Eves with “the world’s oldest teenager.” Some of us are awash with a sense of loss for Whitney Houston and Dick Clark. Well, some economists can’t help but long for America’s manufacturing prime—that era from the 1950s to the 1970s when the economy was robust and inflation was a mere blip. Jobs sprouted like weeds, income levels were strapped to rocket ships and the words ‘Made in America’ meant something.

Unfortunately, economists touting a return to the golden age of American manufacturing are somewhat mistaken, but their wistfulness snagged the attention of yet another president.

President Obama continues efforts to jumpstart American manufacturing in hopes that factory jobs will start growing on trees. He’s made some impact, but not nearly enough. Finance professor and international trade expert Jeffrey Bergstrand says the manufacturing decline cannot be reversed. It can only be stabilized. To be frank, labor costs in the U.S. will never compete with Latin America and parts of Asia. Low-technology manufacturing will never be what it was. And high-tech goods manufacturing—like iPads and iPhones—requires education, technical knowledge, industrial safety training and beyond.

As Bergstrand points out, the industry doesn’t need investment and support, the factory workforce needs investment and support. We need to invest in human capital by educating workers with basic teaching like industrial safety training. Specific skills can be learned, sharpened, retained and passed on, but only with a program that starts with fundamentals. Unemployment doesn’t just cripple our economy; it cripples our workers by depreciating their skills over time. Manufacturing high-tech goods will create employment opportunity. But that changes nothing if our workers aren’t ready.

Complex products that require research, development and widespread industrial aptitude can offer vast job potential. But if our unemployed don’t have the education levels and skillsets to match, the opportunity fizzles. Better training means managers can meet plant safety considerations and satisfy customer demand because of increased output and improved processes. Giant manufacturers like Boeing and the stimulus-revived U.S. automakers wouldn’t be reporting such success (or creating jobs) without investing in both plant safety training and factory worker safety training.

Can factories replenish the 6 million jobs lost since 2000? Probably not. But as economic advisor Gene Sperling stated in his speech at the Conference on the Renaissance of American Manufacturing about President Obama’s industrial policy, investments in human capital and education are non-negotiable. The middleclass is stagnating along with American manufacturing, but nostalgia won’t conjure jobs or income growth.

It’s time to change the game. Start by arming the manufacturing industry with employees bursting with industrial training.

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