What American Workers Need is Re-Training, not False Promises

Dear Mr. Trump,

Let me start by confessing that I was an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons and have spent the last several months in dismay and depression about the results of the Presidential election. I still cannot believe that blue collar Americans, especially in the so-called “rust belt”, voted for someone representing a party that has a long history of not doing anything for them. Clearly blue collar whites, in particular, feel that the Democratic Party has also not done anything for them over the past several decades. What they all see in you is a fresh face from outside the political system who can make [manufacturing in] “America Great Again.” I hope you don’t disappoint the lower-middle and working-class voters who are counting on you.

For starters, you should know that manufacturing in the United States is actually doing quite well, thank you, not the least bit because the Obama administration actually saved the automobile industry in the face of opposition from the Republicans. Since 1999, manufacturing in the U.S. has actually been growing and according to a recent article in Fortune magazine based on research by Deloitte and the Council on Competitiveness, the U.S. is expected to surpass China as the number 1 country for manufacturing by 2020. In 2015, manufacturers contribute about $2.17 trillion to the U.S. economy and accounted for 12.1 percent of GDP. This is a 27.6% increase in just over 5 years. There are currently 12.3 million manufacturing workers in the U.S. accounting for about 9% of the workforce.

Those who work in manufacturing in the U.S. do quite well. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, manufacturing workers earned on-the-average $81,289 annually including pay and benefits. The average wage rate is $26/hour much higher than both the current minimum wage and what is being proposed. Although my union friends will not like to hear this, the reason for this very high wage rates is primarily because technology has made U.S. manufacturing much more productive than before. According to NASM, output per hour for all workers in manufacturing has increased by more than 2.5 times since 1987. U.S. manufacturing is becoming smarter every day and there is a yawning skills gap that is one of the primary reasons for the level of unemployment in the former “rust belt”. (Parenthetically, even the concept of a “rust” belt does not make any sense in describing modern manufacturing in the United States.)

Over the next decade, according to NAM nearly 3½ million manufacturing jobs will be needed and 2 million of these are going to go unfilled because of the skills gap. Other research has quoted that in 2016 there will be twice as many unemployed manufacturing workers for each open position because of this miss-match. It may surprise you to know from a recent Wall Street Journal article by Anna Louise Sussman that in 2000, 53% of manufacturing workers had no education past high school, and by 2015 that share had fallen 9 percentage points while the share with college or graduate degrees had increased by 8 points. She also highlighted a Georgetown University study that showed that in 2016, college educated workers for the first time outnumbered workers with a high-school diploma or less.

So, my dear President, one of the most important things you can do help blue-collar America and fulfill your campaign promise to Make America Great Again is to invest in skills development education in a massive but nuanced way. It needs to be massive because currently skills development is being done in a piecemeal fashion, industry-by-industry, and on an as-needed basis and there is neither economies-of-scale with this approach nor does it make a dent in the need for future American manufacturing. It also has to be nuanced because what is needed is not an over-arching education policy but a set of government directed (or subsidized) investments in technical and digital skills development for future American manufacturing. We have heard for the past couple of decades about how American is falling behind in STEM education and why there needs to be investment in secondary and higher education to stem this decline (pun intended). What is really needed is to invest in community colleges and technical institutes that will help retrain all blue collar workers, regardless of gender, race, color, religion or sexual orientation, and ensure that they have the skills to cope with the digital revolution that has become an integral part of global manufacturing.

Even if you heed this advice and decide to make a big push in manufacturing skills development, you will be confronted with two significant challenges dealing with blue-collar America. First is that most of them are loathe to move to states where manufacturing is actually thriving. Thus the technical schools and community colleges that will provide this education will have to be located close to where the blue collar communities are, especially in the traditional blue states that voted for you this time around, but may not vote Republican again. You will soon come to the realization that all government directed funding goes to places that members of Congress favor. You will have to hold firm against your Republican Party friends and ensure that the funding actually goes to where it is most effective. The second challenge is to change the mindset of the blue-collar communities that have grown up in a culture that eschews education and thinks of anyone with more that a high-school diploma is an “elitist”. Your campaign took advantage of this ignorant mentality but now that you have the bully-pit of the Presidency, you need to use it to exhort everyone in the blue-collar community to “get back to school” and get re-trained for those jobs that will pay them two and three times minimum wage.

And another thing, you may also want to tone down your anti-trade tirades. In 2015, the U.S. manufactured goods exports were $1.317 trillion and we enjoyed a $12.7 billion manufacturing trade surplus with its trade agreement partners, both contributing significantly to manufacturing employment.

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