One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor

Reports of the U.S. manufacturing industry's death have been greatly exaggerated.

You probably didn't read about it in the publicity material generated to promote the NA 2010 show and its host city, Cleveland, but apparently all is not rocking in the Rock 'n Roll City. Based on preliminary Census data, Cleveland (where MHM's editorial offices are based) is experiencing the fastest rate of decline of any major U.S. city that isn't named New Orleans. Referred to as “a dying city” in a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article, the prognosis, say some local pundits, is not good. Cleveland had a nice run as a hub for manufacturing activity, they say, but that day appears to have passed, and people are leaving the city in droves, to the tune of 15,000 per year.

One not-so-minor detail that all of these “Cleveland is dead” articles fail to mention, though, is that the migration out of the city limits is a very short one. Consider this: Money magazine recently rated the Best Places to Live, and four Cleveland suburbs — Highland Heights, Solon, Twinsburg and Medina — finished in the top 40 rankings of America's best small towns. That means that 10% of the U.S. cities considered to have the best schools, the least amount of crime, the most desirable houses and the best quality of life are in fact part of the greater Cleveland community — you know, that “dying city.” Clearly, then, the story isn't that people are leaving the Cleveland area, but rather, just relocating to more desirable zip codes nearby.

Before this commentary deteriorates into a “Let's Go Cleveland” booster speech, let me change the subject and ask, what do you think of first when you hear the phrase “a dying industry?” Chances are pretty good your answer will be “manufacturing,” thanks to a constant drumbeat of negative news from the mainstream media and some politicians who keep telling us that the days of American ingenuity are over, that all the jobs have gone overseas, and in fact that “nothing is made in the USA anymore.”

Certainly, there's no denying that U.S. manufacturing was hit hard by the recession, which of course had a major impact on the material handling and logistics community, which relies on having products to move. When manufacturing activity slows down to a crawl, as we saw happen in 2009, the ripple effect on the rest of the supply chain can be significant. And, the longer it takes for the economy to recover, the less patient people tend to become.

One question that is rarely, if ever, asked of our political leaders is, “If manufacturing is so vital to the economic health of the country, then what are you doing specifically to support the manufacturing industry?” For more than a year, we saw the stupefying spectacle of the executive and legislative branches of our federal government expending their energies on a single issue — healthcare reform — that not only grew increasingly unpopular with each passing day, but didn't even carry the promise of adding new jobs to the marketplace. When you consider what kind of a monster our Dr. Frankensteins in Washington created with the healthcare bill, maybe it's better if our elected officials don't try “fixing” manufacturing.

After all, running the nation's supply chain is not the role of government, anyway. And, the fact remains that U.S. manufacturing most definitely is not dying. While some industries have indeed fled our shores for low-cost countries, the United States is still by far the most productive country in the world, responsible for 22% of all manufactured products (China, by the way, is still a distant second at 13%). More to the point, manufacturing is not a zero-sum game. If China, India or some other country gains a percentage point on global production market share, but the United States actually ends up producing more goods for export to those growing economies overseas, then everybody stands to gain. Our politicians should be focusing their efforts on ensuring that all countries play by the same rules by clamping down on currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices.

Sure, it's easy to focus on everything that's gone wrong, whether it's a city or an industry, but it's a far better use of time and energy to focus on what's still working well and figuring out how to improve the situation. As those of you who come to NA 2010 will quickly discover, Cleveland isn't dead at all — not by a long shot — and neither is the manufacturing and material handling base of this country.

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