Manufacturers Working New Agenda

January 17, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The manufacturing sector is changing fast and it’s changing forever. Now there’s a movement underway to hammer out an “innovation agenda” for the industry. 

Manufacturers had been asking for recognition at the federal level and industry representation in Washington. They got what they asked for in 2004 with the appointment of Al Frink to the newly created position of U.S. Department of Commerce assistant secretary of manufacturing and services.

Frink is now manufacturing’s voice on Capitol Hill, and he has a seat at the policy table. His agenda? “No manufacturer left behind.”

For Frink and all those working to level the global playing field for American manufacturers, this Newsmaker of the Year nomination is for you.

“I believe that the spirit of competition is one of the things that will drive manufacturing as we move forward,” Frink said on a visit here last fall. I see the determination that people have to win. If you can give manufacturing an even playing field, there is no doubt we can be competitive with any country in the world.”

Manufacturing is vital to the U.S. economy because it represents 15.8 percent of the nation’s GDP, and when the multiplier factor is added — all the spin-off business the industry generates — it’s closer to 50 percent of GDP, Frink observed. 

Frink said he will work to dismantle barriers to manufacturing by promoting lean manufacturing and trying to peel away some of the government regulations. He also encourages manufacturers to create “very strong brands” to differentiate their products and their companies.

Frink’s not alone in his quest to shore up the manufacturing sector. The Bush Administration formed a new body last year, the Department of Commerce Manufacturing Council, that’s working with the Commerce Department to advocate, coordinate and implement policies that help U.S. manufacturers compete worldwide. It’s focusing on:

  • Creating the conditions for economic growth and manufacturing investment.
  • Promoting open markets and a level playing field.
  • Lowering the cost of manufacturing in the United States.
  • Investing in innovation.
  • Strengthening education, retraining and economic diversification.

Fred Keller, founder and CEO of Cascade Engineering, and John Padilla, COO of Ford Motor Co., sit on the national council with 11 other manufacturing leaders from across the industry.

At its first meeting, the council formed three subcommittees to tackle the industry’s most pressing issues. A work-force subcommittee is currently concentrating on the cost of health care “because it has become the Achilles heel in manufacturing,” Keller said. A subcommittee on competitiveness is focusing on tort reform, and a subcommittee on international trade is looking at market access issues. The subcommittees presented their initial findings and recommendations to the national council in September. The council meets again in February. 

“We feel like there’s been some progress made and that we’ve reached a point where we have a good voice in Washington,” Keller remarked.

In addition, there’s the West Michigan Manufacturing Council at the local level and the Advanced Manufacturers Council at the state level, both of which enable members to learn best practices from each other and spur each other on to make continuous improvements.

The new national council offers similar but expanded opportunities, Keller said.

Congressman Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, has weighed in on the side of manufacturing, too, as author of the Manufacturing Technology Competitiveness Act, a bill intended to foster innovation in American manufacturing sciences. The bill was reintroduced to the House when Congress reconvened earlier this month, according to Ehlers’ Press Secretary Jon Brandt.

As Ehlers has explained it, the jobs of the future are going to require an understanding of the basic principles of math and science and what the country needs is a national strategy of innovation. That, he has said, can only be created with increased investment in and greater concentration on science, math, engineering and technology education both in schools and the workplace, he said.    

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