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Throwing the Baby Out With the Bathwater

BoeingWe’ve all heard the news. Boeing announced last week it had just lost two major international satellite contracts, which could impact thousands of American manufacturing jobs, and force the company to start looking offshore to fulfill certain aspects of its production. General Electric, meanwhile, announced a few days ago it would send some 500 American jobs overseas. And other industrial giants, such as Caterpillar, have likewise voiced concern and are now openly questioning the viability of certain aspects of their domestic operations.

CaterpillarSeriously? Weren’t we in this exact same place just a few decades ago? Has the cycle really repeated that quickly? And didn’t all those lean years and all that job bleeding teach us anything?

The problem, of course, is the death of the federally backed Export-Import Bank, a government agency designed to spur new business initiatives and foster international trade. The agency was officially shuttered July 1 when Congress, fueled by a torrent of Tea Party rhetoric about – what else? – small government and no debt, voted to stop funding the Ex-Im Bank, effectively killing it.

Ex-ImA couple of weeks ago I wrote about how clueless those fringy right Tea Partiers are (a bunch of head-in-the-sand zealots who, much to the Democrats’ delight, have completely hijacked the GOP). I wrote how some debt is actually good for a company, and how borrowing capital from a bank to buy a new machine or build a new, state-of-the-art factory is actually a sign of strength; an investment in – and bullish statement on – one’s future.

What’s more, a government works best when it works hand-in-glove with industry to make it stronger, while at the same time policing it so that it operates in a manner that is environmentally, socially and morally responsible.

Debt negotiationsBut these yahoos are so utterly convinced that by simply reducing our debt it will somehow restore the luster to our economy, as if the thing needs fixing. Look, my company is living proof that American manufacturing has spent the past two decades in full-scale hyper-growth mode, achieving production levels and a kind of chest-beating pride it has not known for over half a century.

Time Tea PartyBut all that growth, re-shoring, and reclaimed pride are now threatening to come to a screeching and painful halt. Why? Because a bunch of idiots, a vast majority of whom have never run a business in their lives, or operated even a lemonade stand in the open marketplace, just opted to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Those creepy Kool Aid drinkers so hate President Obama, so want to embarrass, short-circuit and even emasculate him, and so believe in the holy righteousness of their own cause, that apparently they would rather destroy the very thing they profess to love, if doing so somehow proved them right.

But you know what? They’re not right. In fact, not by a long shot. And now we have real-life manufacturers and real-life job-creators like Boeing, GE and Caterpillar to prove just how wrong they are.

Obama jobsAs Caterpillar chairman and CEO Doug Oberhelman told the New York Times, “A lot of our suppliers are small. They don’t export, but we do. And if we aren’t exporting, they aren’t selling to us.” He then added, “I find it staggering that we would put highly paid export-oriented jobs at risk.”

Why would the far right do that? Who knows? But it reminds me of the old story of the frog and the scorpion. You know that one, right?

Frog-and-a-ScorpionThe scorpion wants a ride across the river on the back of a frog, who balks, believing the scorpion will bite him. “That’s crazy,” says the scorpion. “If I bite you, we’ll both drown.” So the frog relents, only to be bit by the scorpion halfway across. “But why?” asks the poisoned frog as he’s about to go under. “I can’t help it,” says the scorpion, he too about to go under for one final time. “It’s in my nature. It’s what I do.”

Embracing Debt

DebtIt’s election season again. And once again – just as they’ve done time after time in every recent election – this country’s two-dimensional thinking, Kool Aid-drinking, and fear-mongering presidential hopefuls on the right will be bandying about a word designed to invoke in the minds of millions of voters idyllic days from a simpler, more sepia-colored time in American history.

national debtThat word is debt – or, as they will use it, our national debt. Those red tie-wearing, flag pin-sporting fear-vendors will try to once again convince us Americans that debt is, somehow, a bad thing, that debt is a financially irresponsible, and that debt is a measure of our weakness as an economy.

The problem is, those bozos have no clue as to what they’re talking about.

new machinesI’m a businessman. I know. For example, I know that debt can actually be a good thing.

I go to the bank tomorrow to borrow working capital to buy a new machine or, as I’m doing now, erecting an all-new plant to replace my outmoded one, what do I end up with at the end of the day? Well, besides a new state-of-the-art machine and/or a new, more efficient factory, I end up with a certain amount of debt.

But in this case that debt is a good debt. It is a sign of strength, a sign of growth, and a sign of looking forward and planning ahead.

new factoryAnd all those are good things for a small company like mine.

What’s more, do you know the last time some major economic powers in this world were actually out of debt?

England, for example, has been in various levels of debt for over 300 years, a time during which, as economist Paul Krugman rightly points out, such things as the industrial revolution and victories over ambitious tyrants like Napoleon and Hitler have occurred.

Rand PaulMeanwhile – and this, mind you, according to that perennial presidential hopeful Rand Paul (which would seem to indicate just how far out of step that guy is) – the United States has not been debt-free since 1835.


And while Paul is trying to spin that little nugget as an economic negative, maybe someone should whisper in his ear and remind the guy in the 180 years that have passed since 1835 just how many economic booms were experienced, how many World Wars were won, how many mega-corporations were launched, and just how many engineering marvels of infrastructure achievement were constructed in this debt-laden land of ours.

infrastructureAnd while I’m on that subject, take a good hard look at our country’s rapidly decaying infrastructure. And pay particular attention to our rusting bridges, outdated power grids, rotting underground pipes, crumbling highways, and wheezing 20th Century rail system.

What would you rather be as a country? Debt free, but with all those ticking time bombs ready to go off and send our economy tumbling into a dramatic nosedive? Or with a pile of floating debt, however large, with a great portion of it earmarked to create thousands of jobs, inject billions into our public sector and – oh yes – turn those ticking time bombs of infrastructure liability into marketplace assets.

horseshitLook, I’m not telling you how to vote. You have my permission to drink all the Kool Aid you want. But at least when it comes to this upcoming election and this economy’s relationship to its national debt, please, do yourself a favor. Wake up and smell what certain right-wing politicians promise to be shoveling, even as they’re trying to convince you that the steaming pile of stuff on their shovel is something else entirely.

Honing Worker Skills Should Be Job One

skilled worker 1Three years ago I had the chance to sit down with a young man and offer him some career advice.  His name was Bobby. Two years earlier, he’d been a football player at a local high school who seemed this close to winning a college scholarship; and going to college was something Bobby, a mountain of a working class kid, would probably not have been able to do without the financial relief afforded him by a full, four-year ride.


But, alas, a questionable block, an exposed knee, and a few severely torn ligaments later, Bobby suddenly found his options for what came next in life reduced considerably.


Bobby StephensI remember Bobby had sought me out on the advice of a mutual friend, who felt the young man might possess an aptitude for skilled labor; in part because as a kid he’d always excelled at making things.  I told him in my office one day how exciting and rewarding manufacturing was as a career choice.  I told him too he should develop a very specific and marketable set of skills, and that he should try to be the absolute best at whatever skills, or whatever trade, he chose.


I told him as well that since automation was ramping up quickly in our sector, that whatever skill he chose, he should be aware than he will need to mfg skills 6constantly build upon it, add to it, or maybe even ditch it altogether and change horses mid-steam, should the need arise.  I told him that would be the only way he’d remain in-demand and relevant in what promises to be an ever-changing job market.


After our conversation, my friend told me Bobby decided to go to trade school to learn to become a welder.  Only the young man didn’t just become a mgg skills 1welder.  He became an almost freakishly good welder; so good, in fact, that his teachers who initially thought he must have some kind of training before enrolling, eventually asked him to start teaching a class or two at the school, which he now does as a sideline. 


So the young man now not only has one job.  He has two, with options for even greater career growth opportunities suddenly there for the picking.


mfg skills 5But the point of this post today isn’t Bobby.  It’s manufacturing skills. 


Since that day in my office a few years ago, the increased demand for high-level factory skills and the diminishing reliance on low-skill, repetitive manual labor has only heightened. In fact, robotics and automation and have become such important considerations in today’s job market, that the Atlantic recently ran a cover story around a scenario in which some 6 million American jobs could be lost across multiple sectors to automation in the not-too-distant future.


mfg skills 4In one sense, the solution is not an easy one.  No one knows where technology or the future is headed; certainly not those workers with limited job skills. And even those barons of industry at the very top of the food chain must be debating what such a stunning job loss would do to the overall strength of the economy.


mfg skills3But in another sense, the answer is easy.  If you’re a shop worker, broaden and deepen your skill sets.  And do it now. Go back to school, even on spec.  Turn yourself into a lifelong learner.  And try as hard as possible to hone to an even greater degree the job skills you may currently possess. 


Remember, there will always be a market for hard workers with in-demand skills. The question is, tomorrow what will those skills be?  And the more skills one has, the more likely one (or more) of those skills will remain valuable to those in the industrial sector, large and small.


mfg skills 2The era, alas, when landing a job in manufacturing and keeping it for decades is gradually becoming an endangered species.  Technology alone is altering almost daily the landscape in which we work, if not the very nature of our business.  And today’s prince may well become tomorrow pauper without the ability to keep one eye on the task at hand and one eye squarely on the horizon. 


And that goes for both those on the shop floor and those in all those corner offices across this industrial landscape of ours. 


skilled worker 2Again, it sounds simple, but it’s not.  In this day and age, for management and labor alike, it’s all about the skills; and the more you have, and the more highly refined they are, the better. 


If you don’t believe me, take a lesson from a young man who’s living the reality.  Talk to a kid named Bobby.