Manufacturing and U.S. competitiveness

June 13, 2012

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You may have read or heard something today about how the world views the U.S. The Pew Research Center has released its Global Attitudes Survey findings, and pundits have been quick to jump on and analyze the results, particularly as they relate to this year’s presidential contest and the two main candidates’ interpretations of where things stand.

Among the coverage is an article attributed to Bruce Stokes, director of the Pew Research Center’s Global Economic Attitudes and published on cnn.com. Stokes presents the findings as they stack up to claims by both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney about America’s world standing. He conjectures that both are right and both are wrong.

I’ll leave it to you to read the article to learn about Obama’s and Romney’s views and decide for yourself who is more right (if it’s possible to be more right). What I want to focus on is the portion of the report that deals with the worldview of U.S. competitiveness.

The survey, which covered 14 nations, asked, “Who is the World’s Leading Economic Power?” In 2008, the median percentage of respondents who chose the U.S. as No. 1 was 45, compared to 22 percent who chose China. Although the gap narrowed from 2009 to 2011, the U.S. continued to outrank China. Not so in 2012, when 42 percent believe China is the leading economic power and 36 percent believe the U.S. is.

The report said, “China’s image has slipped in several countries over the last year. The percentage of Japanese with a favorable opinion of China plummeted from 34 percent to 15 percent. In France, China’s favorability ratings dropped from 51 percent to 40 percent and in Britain from 59 percent to 49 percent. And since last year, Americans have become less disposed to rate China positively (51 percent in 2011, 40 percent now).

“However, perceptions of China’s economic power continue to grow. This is especially true in Europe, but the belief that China is the world’s top economy has become more common in the last year in other parts of the world as well, including Brazil, Japan, Turkey and Lebanon.”

Is perception everything? Is it the truth? Are we less competitive than China?

In my mailbox today was the 2011 Annual Report from Nuts, Bolts, & Thingamajigs® (NBT), the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Intl. The publication focuses on the work NBT is doing to address the skilled labor crisis, such as funding camps and scholarships to encourage more young people to pursue manufacturing careers.

On the last page of the report is a letter from NBT President Edward Youdell, who has something to say about how competitive the U.S. really is, at least in terms of manufacturing. Under the headline “What We Need Are More Charlies,” Youdell wrote: “The United States has 313 million citizens; nearly 12 million of them are employed directly in manufacturing. That’s less than four percent of the United States’ total population. What’s all the fuss about manufacturing? I mean how significant can a group so small be? I’ll tell you. These 12 million Americans represent what is best about the U.S.

“In the most globally competitive environment, they kick butt and take names. This group of smart, innovative and hard-working people is number one in the world. They produce 21 percent of the world’s manufactured products—China produces 15 percent and Japan 12 percent. This group of Americans is the most productive in the world and drives the U.S. standard of living to the highest level. These people are spread out all over the U.S., in towns and cities both big and small. Their work not only supports them and their families, it supports more than 28 million of their fellow citizens and their families. It’s called the ‘multiplier effect.’ Economists estimate that for every manufacturing job created, there are 2.34 jobs created in other sectors. That includes the dry cleaner down the street, the Starbucks on the corner, the insurance adjuster, the bank loan officer, and the gas station on the edge of town—all of them benefiting from manufacturing.”

Youdell noted that the manufacturing workforce is made up mostly of baby boomers, and like Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory, they can’t go on forever. “What we need are more Charlies—the young boy Willy selected as his successor.” To that end “we need to show the best and brightest young people that there is honor and value in working with both our head and your hands.”

Youdell also mentioned Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Thomas Edison, and John Deere, who had two traits in common: innovation and a belief in manufacturing, and in an appeal for donations to help further NBT’s work, he wrote, “Help us to keep their legacy of innovation and the manufacturing of great products alive. Help NBT find our next generation of Charlies. Help keep America’s competitiveness on top.”

Hear, hear. Let’s not let the world’s perception become our reality.

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