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Cunningham: Technology Wipes Away Washington’s Manufacturing Myth

By Colin McEvoy on November 28, 2016

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared on The Morning Call website on November 23, 2016. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

It’s when the balloons are gone, the confetti is swept up and the campaign signs are taken down that the hard work begins.

The hard work often includes reconciling campaign slogans with policies. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” That challenge is great this year, particularly when it comes to manufacturing jobs in America.

A lot of promises have been made.

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to wave that will bring back the industrial manufacturing economy of the post-WWII years of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

The simple reason for that is technological revolution.

Just as this country saw two great industrial revolutions during the last two centuries that forever changed the way we worked and lived, today we are living through a revolution of technology, artificial intelligence and robotics that will, once again, forever change us. And, it has begun.

Most manufacturers today have seen a doubling or tripling of output with far fewer workers. Machines and technology do what people used to do. This dynamic has made American manufacturing competitive with countries with lower labor costs. For the first time since the days of Bethlehem Steel, manufacturing in the Lehigh Valley is the largest economic sector, with about 680 manufacturers in the two counties.

But, while about 35,000 people work in Lehigh Valley manufacturing, it’s far from the largest employment sector. More than twice as many people work in health care. There were 64,000 steelworkers in the United States last year, and 820,000 home health-care aides, just one small sector of the health care industry.

It is understandable that working-class communities across America would want to see a return to the days where local factories provided a decent wage for anyone with a strong back and a good work ethic. The message of returning to those halcyon days has tremendous allure.

The challenge is the reality.

Renegotiating trade deals may help to level the playing field in certain areas, but the technology genie is out of the bottle. Manufacturing jobs today require much more skills and training. The pathway to them is education and skills development, just as it’s been in the white-collar world.

This is a time for tough love. There is nothing the federal government can do to drop factories back into every hard-hit burgh and hamlet in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin or anywhere else in America. Manufacturers will go to the places that have the best skilled workers and the best access to market to move their products.

Factories were once built on winding rivers, in mountains and well off the beaten path because rivers were the infrastructure and raw materials were around the corner. Today’s manufacturers need access to major road networks, large ports and an abundance of skilled workers and training. That’s why it’s working in the Lehigh Valley.

Politics is about selling, which is often about telling people what they want to hear. Leadership is about telling people what they need to hear, even if it has consequences. In 1960, John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” There is much we can do.

Today, both parties seem more inclined to fuel a myth that the federal government or a strong leader can remove all the economic obstacles and challenges that people or communities face. The free market follows its own path. Innovation drives change and invention ensures that tomorrow won’t be the same as yesterday.

Manufacturing jobs will forever be different, most likely there will always be fewer of them than other sectors, and they will be located in much different places than they were during the last century. The American manufacturing worker needs to have more skills, more education and, just as white-collar workers have done for decades, they will need to move to where the jobs are located.

The quicker we dispel economic myths and eliminate the idea that Washington will make everything how it used to be, the better prepared our country, our communities and our people will be to prosper in this technological revolution.

RFP Issued for Lehigh County Speculative Industrial Flex Buildings

Responses Due by December 30, 2016 Introduction:  Lehigh’s Economic Advancement Project, Inc. (LEAP), in partnership with the Lehigh County Department of Community and [...]

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