One Belt Shaking Off Its Rust

This week we learned what people in my part of the country have sensed for quite some time: that things are continuing to get better around here. 

It was not that long ago that America’s Factory Belt – that stretch of Northeast blue-collar towns along the Great Lakes from Massachusetts to Wisconsin, an area many cynics now often call the Rust Belt – was cratering. 

Many parts of this one-time manufacturing hub had fallen into deep disrepair, if not all-out disarray.  And while this still-proud and still-vitally important Rust Belt is certainly not back to where it needs to be, manufacturing-wise, we’re getting there. 

And there is no better evidence than a report issued this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia saying that manufacturing is on the rise again in March, especially in two regions of the country: the Northeast, and the area in and around Southern Wisconsin/Northern Illinois, which includes my home of Chicago.  

What’s more, according to the report, this rise is more than a simple blip on the radar screen.  It is part of what has emerged as a real honest-to-goodness economic trend.

As I said, this really comes as no surprise to people like me who own and operate manufacturing firms here and who have been paying close attention to such things.  We know that manufacturers in this part of the country have been steadily investing in new technology and automation for years.  We’ve been embracing principles of lean manufacturing, and we have spent the last few years scrambling to tap into expanding overseas markets.

And we’ve done it because the reality of the dire situation in which we found ourselves forced us to.

Likewise, we’ve witnessed what’s happened to other parts of the U.S., as the one-time Sun Belt boom of the last 30 years has led to some very real and very significant growing pains in many Sun Belt cities, especially in such suddenly vulnerable states as Florida, Texas, California and Nevada. 

Over-expansion, the burst of the housing bubble, job shortages, crime, poverty, never-before-seen levels of personal and public debt, and most of all, a critical shortage of clean and abundant water, have all conspired to turn places whose futures once looked so prosperous into places whose outlooks now seem far cloudier and much less certain.

Meanwhile, here we are in the Rust Belt, having already spent the last 30 years re-inventing ourselves and trying for all we’re worth to make ourselves a destination for potential new business and industry. 

What’s more, we’ve had what amounts to a 30-year head-start on adapting to all the downward pressure on wages, salaries and prices the rest of the country is just now having to come to grips with.

As a result, we now find ourselves leaner, meaner and far more prepared for the kind of full-frontal competition that is being waged globally than any other part of this country.

The result?  All those jobs you hear about re-shoring back from China and other overseas locations?   A lot of them are coming here, the place so many people just a few years ago were giddily calling the Rust Belt.

Forward-thinking, growth-focused companies are looking at this area’s affordable urban real estate, our lean, hungry, well-educated and already re-trained workforce, our closeness to many key ports and shipping lanes, and, again, more than anything else, our stunningly abundant supply of clean, inexpensive water, and are deciding the Sun Belt doesn’t look nearly so as sunny as it once did.

Like I said; we’re not back where we need to be yet.  But as one who’s lived here and worked in factories in the shadow of the Great Lakes my whole life, and one who’s experienced first-hand the cyclical nature of all things, particularly local economies, I can assure you we’re on our way.

And when the manufacturing renaissance now underway in this country begins to really take hold, and begins to make this country’s economy once again hum like the sound of a well-oiled machine, believe me it will do so right here, where it all began.

In the Belt that started it all.

This message paid for by a participant in and an unabashed supporter of the greatest manufacturing hub America and the world have ever known.  My name’s Perry Sainati and I approved this blog post.

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