What's Holding Back a Manufacturing Renaissance?
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Manufacturing is poised to lead the economy in the 21st century, but it needs pro-growth strategies and policies and human capital before it can fully realize its potential.
“Manufacturing is more than a job; it’s the heart of the country, it’s our independence, our stability, our security,” says Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “But its capability is challenged by intensifying competition, uncertainty, regulations, and talent shortages and mobility.”
Muilenburg joined other industry leaders, economists, and manufacturers at a May 17 Business Horizon Series event hosted by the National Chamber Foundation, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.
Muilenberg said that future growth in manufacturing depends on collaboration between the government and the industry. He praised Congress for its recent reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which finances U.S. exports. There are other ways government can help strengthen manufacturing, according to Muilenburg:
- Make permanent and strengthen the research & development tax credit.
- Further reform the export controls program, particularly with regard to restrictive technology included on the U.S. munitions list.
- Prevent sequestration and the resulting budget cuts to Department of Defense spending.
- Develop a national strategy to strengthen the workforce.
The lack of an educated and skilled manufacturing workforce was a common theme throughout the Business Horizon Series event. Sandy Westlund-Deenihan, president and design engineer with Quality Float Works, is particularly concerned with the skills gap. She said she’s had to teach workers basic math, science and life skills, including how to use a ruler. The problem is three-fold: “a lackluster pipeline of new employees, an uneducated entry-level workforce, and a retiring, aging workforce.”
Businesses, she said, must get more involved in the education system early, even at the K-12 level. They also need to look at nontraditional employees, such as women re-entering the workforce, immigrants, and veterans, Westlund-Deenihan said.
Ron Bullock, chairman of Bison Gear and Engineering Corp., says that 45% of his employees are eligible for retirement over the next 15 years. “The boomer train has left the station,” he says, referring to the “tsunami of retiring Baby Boomers.” He, along with Westlund-Deenihan, are making a great effort to work with their community and local colleges, create programs to reach middle school children, and put a focus on science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM).
“With unemployment hovering around 8%, it’s surprising that we are struggling to fill positions, but that’s where we are,” Bullock said.