Ehlers Bill

July 19, 2004
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Even in election years, it’s not Congressman Vern Ehlers’ style to employ florid campaign language. But last week he declared “victory for small and medium-sized manufacturers” when the House overwhelmingly passed his Manufacturing Technology Competitiveness Act.

Birgit Klohs seconded his assessment. “On behalf of the manufacturers of West Michigan, we want to express our deep gratitude to Representative Ehlers,” wrote The Right Place Inc. president. “He has been absolutely tireless in supporting the manufacturing sector and the passage of this bill is a great victory.”

Ehlers said he designed the measure — now going to the U.S. Senate — to foster U.S. manufacturing competitiveness by providing several ways through the National Institute of Standards and Technology to speed the transfer of new technology into manufacturing.

The measure also reauthorized the 13-year-old Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program, with the very strong encouragement of hundreds of successful West Michigan firms that it has helped. Their encouragement now is directed toward Senators Levin and Stabenow.

MEP is a national technical assistance network of 400 not-for-profit centers — one being The Right Place itself — that exist solely to help small and medium manufacturers become more competitive. (BizBest earlier this year named MEP one of the 100 best resources for small businesses, saying a firm can tap into it for excellent practical guidance — on quality certification, improving plant layout, strategic planning or restructuring finances — at a fraction of the cost of private consultants.)

Nothing, certainly, seems more important to the nation today than providing low-cost help to hone the competitiveness of firms embroiled in the ever more competitive global economy … especially now that competition has begun boosting energy and commodity prices.

Businesses not only can tap into MEP at low cost, but the program remains low-cost to taxpayers, too. Aggregate funding for Ehlers’ measure in the next four years comes to $500 million, a pittance in federal terms.

That aside, the technology transfer aspects of the bill also seem particularly intriguing, in part because of the local presence of a world-class biomedical research center, but also because West Michigan already is incredibly well-equipped to put new technology to work.

West Michigan this spring was rated third in the world — repeat, the world — concerning the effectiveness with which it translates knowledge into economic value, and into wealth for its citizens. In the same index, West Michigan also rated first in per capita private equity investment and first in per capita R&D expenditure by business — a rating issued in April, months before the recent announcements about new local capital investment groups.

With these things going for West Michigan, the extension and expansion of federal encouragement in the form of the Manufacturing Technology Competitiveness Act is the best of news, second only perhaps to the corporate tax cuts that Congress enacted last year.

West Michigan historically has shown itself to have an exceedingly sharp business community.

But the MEP program is one of the factors that is helping it stay on the mark during a very rough transition in global economics. We join Congressman Ehlers in urging the Senate to take up the Manufacturing Technology Competitiveness Act forthwith.           

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