PI Original Josh Kalven Friday December 19th, 2008, 11:21am

A Fork In The Road: The Promise Of Advanced Manufacturing

"If you are going through hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill

Every day, we see the painful downward spiral of an economy dominated by speculation and paper profits intended to maximize short-term return at the expense of our nation's long-term health. In the current ...

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

Every day, we see the painful downward spiral of an economy dominated by speculation and paper profits intended to maximize short-term return at the expense of our nation’s long-term health. In the current global financial crisis, we feel the effects of that philosophy in ways that threaten serious destabilization. We now must rebuild what 25 years of failure has taken from us: a vibrant, healthy middle class that honors labor, creates real wealth, grows strong communities, and helps to lift our fellow citizens out of poverty. We must rapidly implement new and innovative solutions to heal our environment rather than hasten its demise. Specifically, we must re-discover, re-invent, and re-build manufacturing in the knowledge economy.

Chicago is the birthplace of a successful recipe for socio-economic change that can fulfill those hopes in ways that are real and lasting. The emergence of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC) provides a model that can be replicated in cities and communities throughout the country. This model is based a social partnership between businesses, labor unions, local governments, community members, and educators united under a shared vision for a new productive economy based on advanced manufacturing.

Why this focus? Because the production of complex, high-tech goods has the greatest potential for ensuring our long-term economic growth. The advanced manufacturing sector is host to a dynamic intersection of science, technology, research, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and human talent. It is the incubator where new ideas for products and processes occur and where solutions to our environmental crisis will be found.

As the global economy worsens, chasing short-term profits at the expense of our long-term national health is no longer an option. As we look towards the future, we see that societal investment in advanced manufacturing represents the single best strategy for long-term economic health. A few reasons why:

- This sector is ripe for a fusion of public and private interest, generating real wealth for investors and owners while providing competitive wages and generous benefits for employees that can serve as a foundation for real community development.

- The economic multiplier of manufacturing is greater than for any other sector of the economy. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that, for every new job in the manufacturing sector, three-and-a-half more are created in other sectors of the economy.

- American manufacturing has moved beyond dreary assembly line work to a highly technological, team-oriented enterprise that requires a skilled workforce. The industry offers exciting career paths that lead into engineering, research, design, management, and even company ownership.

- If we are to actually solve the environmental crisis, it will be through the work of industrial developers creating new processes and inventing new products that stop doing damage and start restoring the planet.

The United States still enjoys a competitive advantage in advanced manufacturing because of past investments in infrastructure and education, but we are quickly falling behind. Without swift and decisive national leadership, we will lose this vital sector of the economy to developing countries who already have a competitive advantage in products made by unskilled and low-cost labor.

In order to ensure the long-term vibrancy of advanced manufacturing, we as a society must invest in creating:

- A world-class education system from preschool to grad school to ongoing, life-long skills training that meets the needs of a dynamic workplace, which would offer profound benefits to the young people of our society.

- A cutting-edge transportation, technology, and research infrastructure that serves the whole society.

- Social partnerships that allow business, labor, government, and educators to work together nationally and locally to ensure the success of this sector, create new opportunities, and leverage resources.

Created by the leaders of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Mayor’s Office for Workforce Development, and the Center for Labor and Community Research, the CMRC has been working to accomplish this on regional level. Since 2005, we:

- Launched Austin Polytechnical Academy, an inner city public school specifically designed to train the next generation of leaders in advanced manufacturing. This is the school that President-elect Obama has highlighted as an innovative educational model that must be replicated nationally. Replication is already underway, with the new Chicago Academy for Advanced Technology (CAAT) opening in the fall of 2009.

- Created Manufacturing Works, a program that effectively links skilled Chicago workers with careers in local companies, boosting employees’ competitiveness, their pay rates, and their economic impact on the city.

- Worked with the City Colleges of Chicago and other community colleges to bring their manufacturing programs to higher, industry-based standards.

- Anticipating a multi-billion dollar market linked to restoring our environment, the CMRC, in partnership with the Great Lakes Wind Project, is building the capacity of local manufacturing companies to become the supply chain for international wind turbine producers.

As we speak, there’s a lot happening with these initiatives. In coming months, I’ll be back with more on the programs above and the strategic thinking behind them.

Dan Swinney is the executive director of both the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council and the Center for Labor & Community Research.

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