President Trump and the New Manufacturing

Trump 1Like most Americans, I’ve been watching the first two weeks of the Trump administration with a curious mixture of fascination, hope and concern.

I’m fascinated watching a man who’s never done a day of public service in his life perform after he woke up one morning to discover he’s suddenly the most influential civil servant in the country.

And while his two executive decrees – the one banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and the one mandating we begin building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – seem astonishingly reactionary and half-baked, I remain cautiously hopeful.

I’m hopeful, despite the ham-fisted way his administration rolled out the ban on Muslim refugees, that he can bring about meaningful change in Washington – without, of course, having that change (or his odd, ego-fueled, and now obvious personality tics) lead our economy down too many rabbit holes.  After all, our national economy has been growing gradually and steadily for eight years running.

Trump 2But my guarded optimism aside, I cannot help but feel deeply concerned that, based on the man’s bombastic and ready-fire-aim rhetoric, Mr. Trump seems to understand precious little about the very same American manufacturing he promises to return to prominence.

I’ve been writing in this space for six years now that that tide has been shifting for a while, and that manufacturing is already returning. (Those who study such things have been calling the phenomenon “re-shoring.”)  The problem is, so much of what is returning is doing so because in the industrial sector automation and robotics have replaced many of our most repetitive and lowest-skilled factory jobs.

Manufacturing is coming back, in other words. Manufacturing jobs are not – at least not the ones the president seems intent on saving. It’s another one of those times in which Mr. Trump’s lack of specific knowledge and his infamous disinterest in even the most basic of details promise to derail his otherwise noble intentions.

Trump 3I’m concerned as well that he has no idea what “Made in America” even means – if only because so many of us in the sector don’t understand it either.  After all, if Volkswagen in Georgia continues to employ fulltime 3,000 U.S. citizens, are those workers assembling an American-made car or a German one?

I’m very concerned that globalization is happening, and that we have only two choices in that regard; we can either leverage it to our benefit, or – in the name of protectionism – we can close ranks, impose hefty tariffs, and then watch as China, Japan, India, Brazil, the EU and the like impose reciprocal tariffs on all American goods. Then we’ll all be forced to suffer the consequences as countries quickly (and gladly) fill the global void created as hundreds, if not thousands, of customers of small U.S. shops like mine start pursuing cheaper, tariff-free alternatives.

And speaking of small shops, I’m worried too that given the president’s apparent 1970’s view of manufacturing, he has yet to realize that many of the one-time sprawling, belching, behemoths of 20th Century American industry, the ones that exist in his mind, have been supplanted by a new generation of lean, agile and market-specific specialty manufacturers.

Trump 6And I’m worried the president – who, as a candidate, echoed the “drill baby drill” cry of the fringe right, and promised to bring back a coal industry whose product, practices and technologies all date back to the 19th Century – doesn’t realize most manufacturers (large and small) have begun weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, including natural gas and nuclear, and are already migrating toward cleaner, more sustainable, and far more efficient fuel sources, knowing such cost-effective energy sources are not only better for our planet, they’re better for our bottom line.

I guess, to sum up, what I’m really trying to say is I hope our president has a successful run. I hope, as he promised, he strengthens our economy and creates jobs. And I hope too he is able to run interference for all U.S. manufacturers and help small, thriving and independent shops like mine grow and prosper.

Trump 5But, that said, I hope Mr. Trump comes armed with more than what’s he’s shown so far.

I hope he has at least a few tangible and workable solutions in his back pocket.

I hope he’s got ideas for a stimulus package or two that will spur companies like mine to invest in ourselves and evolve as the technology the defines us evolves.

And, finally, I hope he develops a broader and deeper understanding of the marketplace, a hyper-competitive and often borderless world in which innovation, ideas and efficiencies are currencies that promise never to lose value.

Trump 4But I remain concerned.  Because, at least after these first few weeks, it seems we’re being led by a man willing to venture into the global marketplace armed with little more than a few wafer-thin promises, a rear view mirror, and a time machine he still wants to believe exists.

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