Manufacturing-sector growth should be high on candidate agendas

Clint Eastwood in Chrysler advertisement

“This country can’t be knocked out with one punch,” growled actor Clint Eastwood during a Super Bowl commercial. “We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.”

Eastwood, who immortalized tough cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan, appeared on television screens to a massive national audience to highlight the rebirth of Chrysler.

But he also perfectly delivered a message of unity and resiliency to Americans.”We find a way through tough times,” he said, “And if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.”

Americans are yearning for pathways to recovery. They want some inspiration along the way. And they’re assessing which person is most qualified to rally people behind a solid vision of a brighter U.S. future.

While people of all political persuasions were tuned in to the Super Bowl, Eastwood set the table for the national debate over how to restore the U.S. economy, particularly the manufacturing sector.

Chrysler and General Motors got billions of dollars in federal government aid to stay alive. That financial intervention bought the companies some time to overhaul their business models and focus on producing vehicles that consumers want to buy. Chrysler has repaid its government loans and it turned a profit in 2011.

President Obama, a Democrat, has labeled the bailout a success, and former President George W. Bush, a Republican, earlier this month defended his actions to save Chrysler and GM.

On Tuesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney blasted Obama in a Detroit News opinion column for supporting a federal bailout of the auto industry, arguing instead that the car companies should have restructured themselves in bankruptcy.

Romney is locked in a close battle with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for votes in Michigan’s GOP presidential primary set for Feb. 28.

Michigan, epicenter of the U.S. automotive industry, provides an excellent backdrop for the Republican presidential candidates to flesh out the policy changes they would support to enable more hiring for manufacturing jobs. Santorum, who favors cutting corporate taxes, has moved up in national GOP polls, so he now has the public platform to explain in detail what he’d do to clear obstacles that prevent manufacturers from growing at an even faster rate.

Encouraging rebirth

There has been an encouraging rebirth in U.S. manufacturing. The sector has added 334,000 jobs in the past two years.

But the manufacturing job base eroded well before the Great Recession started, as plants became more efficient and some companies shifted manufacturing jobs overseas.

Obama recently proposed eliminating tax deductions that companies claim when they move operations overseas, and he wants to create financial incentives for bringing jobs back to the United States. He traveled to Milwaukee on Wednesday to shine the national spotlight on Master Lock, a company that returned jobs to the United States from China.

The president also emphasized his message of “strengthening American manufacturing” when he went on the road Monday to sell his budget proposal. In Obama’s budget, the administration included $2.2 billion for advanced manufacturing research and development. Advanced manufacturing incorporates technology to improve products made in U.S. plants and to streamline the processes used on factory floors.

Obama also is advocating tax and trade reforms to aid U.S. manufacturers. Commerce Secretary John Bryson was in Minneapolis Feb. 10 and talked about the progress that’s being made to double U.S. exports within five years.

In his State of the Union speech, the president outlined steps to shape an “economy that’s built to last,” and a bigger manufacturing sector is the foundation of that plan.

While many Americans may have concluded that it’s too expensive to make goods in the United States, there still are 12 million Americans working in manufacturing. In Minnesota, about 300,000 people are employed by manufacturing companies, and the sector gained 3,600 jobs during 2011.

The portion of Americans employed in manufacturing has declined in recent decades. But those jobs weren’t simply transferred overseas. Today’s plants and factories are highly mechanized and efficient, so they need fewer workers to operate. In modern manufacturing plants, many workers now need at least a two-year degree to get hired.

In today’s factories, a strong mind is more essential than a strong back.

At odds with trade group

While the president wants the manufacturing sector to grow, he is at odds with a major industry trade group. In a statement released Monday, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) criticized the Obama budget plan, which it characterized as including “one job-killing tax increase after another.”

NAM has set four goals to stimulate a “manufacturing renaissance” in the United States. The trade organization wants to turn the United States into the best place in the world to manufacture and attract foreign direct investment, which includes reducing health-care costs for patients and providers and modernizing the U.S. infrastructure. It also is advocating greater access to global markets.

NAM wants the United States to be home to the “world’s leading innovators,” and it is emphasizing the importance of having the trained workers that “the 21st-century economy requires.”

Manufacturing jobs are so critical to the U.S. economy because they pay well and manufactured goods can be exported to countries with growing middle classes. The average U.S. manufacturing worker earned $77,186 in pay and benefits in 2010, according to NAM.

One Minnesota manufacturer helped put Santorum on the Minnesota political map. Before Santorum won the Minnesota GOP caucus straw poll on Feb. 7, he visited Bemidji Woolen Mills and ordered several trademark sweater vests.

Now that the GOP field has been winnowed to four candidates and President Obama is in campaign mode, it’s a good time for Americans to tune into the policy debates.

The candidates have spent plenty of time attacking each other’s records. But Americans want to know what each of them would do to strengthen the economy and reduce the massive debt.

It’s now time for each candidate to articulate a clear and positive vision of where he wants to take the country. Fostering a resurgence in manufacturing should be a key goal of each candidate, and voters will decide who can best deliver on that goal.

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