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American Exceptionalism Starts on Your Shop Floor

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Now is the time to embrace a manufacturing resurgence to protect and promote American Exceptionalism,” asserted Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, in remarks last month at Harper College in Palatine, Ill. The visit to the Chicago suburb was just one leg of his State of Manufacturing tour, which also included stops in New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas and Maryland. Whether he intended his itinerary to mimic a presidential primary run, there is certainly a connection between election-year politics and NAM’s campaign to promote U.S. manufacturing. “Manufacturing is the lifeblood of any successful economy. We want the next president to be a manufacturing president,” Timmons told the business executives, community leaders and students gathered in Harper’s impressive new FMA Metal Fabrication Lab.

Manufacturing supports an estimated 18.5 million jobs in the United States and contributes $2.17 trillion to the U.S. economy. Over the next decade, the U.S. will need to fill 3.4 million manufacturing jobs. Yet up to 2.0 million of those jobs may never materialize due to a serious shortage of trained workers. “The skills gap affects all of us through lost innovation, lower productivity and suppressed economic activity,” Timmons said.

Only 37 percent of parents encourage their children to pursue manufacturing careers, surveys show, and only 18 percent of students view manufacturing as a top career choice. Why? Because the term “manufacturing” still conjures images of the dark and gritty factory floor of the past century. Manufacturers need to replace those images with visions of the high-tech and innovative workplace that manufacturing is today. More students—and their families, teachers and mentors—need to realize the opportunities that exist in manufacturing, where the average worker earns more than $79,000 a year, Timmons said.

Training the next generation of workers is not up to educational institutions like Harper College alone. Companies themselves must partner with schools and trade groups to help nurture the 21st century workforce. Members of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association set a good example. FMA awarded a $500,000 grant that helped double the size of Harper’s manufacturing lab. But one lab in one state is just a start; similar initiatives are needed across the country.

As part of the manufacturing supply chain, service centers should play a more active role in recruiting and training young talent. Filling the nation’s skills gap will take an exceptional grassroots effort. It doesn’t appear we can count on the election of an exceptional president.