Education will be the way out of U.S. manufacturing’s decline

Author's new book chronicles rise and decline of Midwest manufacturing


Author Dick Longworth starts his presentation with a story that might be a joke in other times. The devil, it seems, came to the mayor of Flint, MI about 80 years ago and made a deal that his city would enjoy 60 years of economic prosperity unrivaled in American history. At the time, that seemed like a good deal to the mayor on behalf of his community, and so he took the deal.

“It seems the whole Midwest took the devil’s deal,” Longworth noted in a speech June 18 before the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council. Longworth’s book, “ Caught in the Middle ” chronicles the rise and steep decline of Midwest manufacturing , and he points to plenty of devils in discussing how that decline took place.

While labor costs and offshoring are certainly factors, Longworth also quoted one writer’s observation that there was “a culture of expectation and entitlement” about manufacturing jobs in Midwestern cities large and small. When complacency replaced an inventive, entrepreneurial spirit in manufacturing, innovation started to wane.

“Business schools were churning our people who knew how to run big, old companies,” said Longworth, a former Chicago Tribune reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist who is now a senior fellow on the Chicago Council on .

“The industrial era in the Midwest is over, and it’s not coming back,” said Longworth. “The odd thing is that manufacturing in the Midwest is doing fine. Output is up 50%, but employment is falling, year after year.”

Global manufacturing gets a good bit of attention from Longworth, but he notes the rules for how global manufacturing will work are still evolving, as issues such as energy, labor costs, distribution and the emerging global middle class continue to be sorted out. “We are in the global era now where the industrial era was when James Watt started to tinker with the steam engine,” he said. “If workers are going to compete, they are going to need superior education in this new economy.”

Education became the focal point of the discussion at the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council meeting. Chicago civic and business leaders noted the city’s effort to create focused educational opportunities for young people, but noted much more work is needed.

“Globalization is not an ideology where you can choose to participate or not. Globalization is a phenomenon,” said Hardik Bhatt, Chief Information Officer for Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT). “The focus is on the next generation of education %%MDASSML%% math, science and technology. If we want to stay competitive, we have to act now.”

“It is an issue of human capital,” said Cheryle Jackson, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. “This is not a social issue. It is a competitiveness issue. If your workforce is not educated, trained and engaged, you’ll be hard-pressed to be competitive globally.”

While Longworth’s book paints a gloomily accurate view of the recent past for Midwest manufacturing, he notes that some of the Rust Belt’s once-prosperous manufacturing centers %%MDASSML%% Akron, Dayton and Peoria for example %%MDASSML%% are reinventing themselves in the global manufacturing economy. “They are remaking their image as a high-tech center,” Longworth said.

While global monetary, energy and environmental issues will all play a factor in the future for manufacturing in the Midwest and in the U.S., Longworth sees an educated workforce as a key. “In this new economy, any kid who doesn’t graduate high school will struggle,” he said. “We have to educate our children to the future of work without knowing what that work might be.” %%MDASSML%% Bob Vavra

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