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Ed Gresser: What Should the President Say About Manufacturing?

By Ed Gresser January 16, 2013

The director of the ProgressiveEconomy project at the GlobalWorks Foundation has some optimistic suggestions for the President's upcoming addresses.

What should the president say about manufacturing this week?  Well, what can words do?  Once said they often vanish – but on occasion they can explain, they can inspire, and they can last.

By way of explanation, the president can give simple, factual answers to common questions about American industry today.  Maybe three are enough.  In doing so, he can convey to the public some justified optimism.

Do Americans still make things?  Yes.  Americans are the world’s leading manufacturers and make lots of complex, useful, and excellent things:  satellites, high-tech textiles, airplanes, steel and aluminum, military equipment, tractors and cars, pacemakers and MRI machines, chemicals, semiconductor chips and so on.   Statisticians at the United Nations find that the United States produces about 24 percent of the world’s manufactured goods.  Though a bit down from the 27 percent figure they found in 2000, that’s quite a lot.

Is American manufacturing past its peak?   No.  Since the crisis in 2008-2009, manufacturing has joined agriculture and natural-resource industry as the American economy’s success story.  Americans have been making more things, and also exporting more things, every year.  From 2009 through 2011 (the most recent data available) America’s manufacturing production, as measured by value-added, rose from $1.4 trillion to $1.6 trillion.  From 2009 to 2012, manufacturing exports have risen by 50 percent – from $730 billion in 2009 to $1.1 trillion in 2012.  To keep pace with growth, factory managers have hired half a million more workers since 2010.

And can Americans compete against fast-growing low-wage rivals?  Yes.  Americans have worried about this since the 1790s.  Using technology to raise productivity – water-powered looms in the 18th century, assembly lines in the early 20th century, robots and computers today – always make it possible.  No less an authority than Albert Einstein put it very simply in 1921:  “Once the machine is sufficiently developed, it becomes cheaper in the end than the cheapest labor.”

With this, explanation has achieved all it can and must give way to inspiration.

After the three questions about the present comes a fourth about the future:  Will Americans continue to make things? Neither logic nor analysis of facts offer much help, because the answer lies in choices yet to be made.  And so here the president needs to move to inspiration.

If Americans are to continue making complex, useful, and excellent things, actual young men and women will need to devote their schooling and their working lives to technical fields.  If they do, the president of 2032 will be able to give reassuring explanations of the facts about American industry.  If they don’t, he won’t.

Relatively few young Americans today make this choice.  According to the Education Department’s data, engineering peaked as a major for college kids a quarter-century ago.  In 1986, 1 million American men and women graduated college, and 97,000 of them left campus with engineering degrees.   The class of 2010 was a lot bigger – 1.65 million – but included only 87,000 new engineers.  The drop, from 10 percent of graduates then to 5 percent now, means America’s industrial labs and assembly lines are missing nearly 100,000 new engineers a year.  The comparable figures for physical sciences, math, and computer science aren’t much more reassuring.  These are the people who should be designing the products of the next decades, and the processes by which they will be made.  The cost of their absence is already high and will grow as years pass.

Why do young people opt against industrial and technical careers?  Perhaps, as Pamela Kan’s December IdeasLab column suggested, they see manufacturing as grubby, as boring, as an uninspiring way to spend your life.  But as she enthusiastically points out from her own experience, this isn’t right at all.  To design a complex, useful, and excellent thing is to really make a work of art.  Here’s a classic appreciation, from aviation pioneer Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1938 essay about his airplane:

“All of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of something whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity.  … In this spirit do engineers, physicists, and the swarm of preoccupied draughtsmen tackle their work.  They seem to be polishing surface and refining away angles, easing this joint or stabilizing that wing, rendering these parts invisible, so that in the end there is no longer a wing hooked to a framework but a form flawless in its perfection, completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.”

If America’s manufacturing future is to match its past and its present, it needs young people who choose futures as inventors, engineers, and skilled workers. This is why the most useful words the president can say about manufacturing are not announcements of new policies, nor even the factual explanations that relieve anxiety about the state of American manufacturing today.  The best words are those that might help young people them see manufacturing in the light Kan does now or the great Saint-Ex. did then, as an exciting, creative, even glamorous profession.

President Obama’s speeches, this week and in February’s State of the Union address, will reach about two million high school seniors on their way to college.  As he leaves office in 2017, they will be leaving school.  If his words can inspire a few of them to turn their minds to technical careers, their college class might contain 120,000 or 150,000 young engineering graduates.  And those would be words that last.

Ed Gresser is Director of the ProgressiveEconomy project at the GlobalWorks Foundation.