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Americans Want Stronger Manufacturing, But Aren’t Confident They’ll Get It

A healthy manufacturing sector is one of the keys to the country’s economic future, most Americans believe, and for the most part they feel the United States has what it takes to make manufacturing thrive. But they’re not entirely optimistic that all the pieces will fall into place.

Area Development Online Research Desk (November 2012)
A healthy manufacturing sector is one of the keys to the country’s economic future, most Americans believe, and for the most part they feel the United States has what it takes to make manufacturing thrive. But they’re not entirely optimistic that all the pieces will fall into place.

Those are the findings of a new survey from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. The survey reveals a populace that believes firmly in the importance of manufacturing but isn’t sure its future is as strong here as it needs to be. And while respondents want their communities to create new manufacturing jobs more than any other kind of opportunity, their concerns about the future are so pervasive that only a third would encourage their kids to go after those jobs.

It was the fourth annual “Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing” survey — taken in September 2012 and reaching a nationally representative group of 1,000 respondents — and it found a mix of gloom about manufacturing and support for making the sector stronger. Just 16 percent said they feel confident that the state of American manufacturing is likely to improve in the next year, while 23 percent feared it would weaken. And over the longer term, 46 percent said they expect American manufacturing to weaken and 32 percent felt the most likely scenario is the status quo. These public sentiments are in line with analysts’ projections; for example, Moody’s Analytics expects flat manufacturing employment over the next year, after growth of about 1 percent during the past year.

The study from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found broad support for focusing more intense attention on manufacturing than it’s getting now — 84 percent said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that the country needs a more strategic approach to developing its manufacturing base, and nearly the same number want to see greater investment into the manufacturing sector.

“The perceived lack of competitiveness leadership across the board seems to be seeping beyond manufacturing, dragging down optimism about an economic turnaround,” says Jennifer McNelly, president of The Manufacturing Institute. Indeed, when asked about the economy as a whole, 59 percent said it has “not improved or gotten better” in recent years.

“Despite the public’s overwhelming desire for American policymakers and business leaders to double down on manufacturing, it is crystal clear that they believe we are not seeing enough action,” says Craig Giffi, Deloitte LLP’s vice chairman and Consumer and Industrial Products Industry practice leader. Just 35 percent of the respondents said that federal and state leadership are playing a role in creating a competitive American advantage compared with other countries, and only about half believed that local school systems are providing the skills needed for manufacturing jobs.

Even so, survey respondents seemed confident that the United States has what it takes to achieve a strong manufacturing sector. “For example, 78 percent of respondents cited America’s technological prowess as one of the key contributors to the nation’s competitive advantage,” says Giffi. “Further, 75 percent cited America’s research and development capabilities as a key advantage.” Respondents were positive about other contributors to competitiveness, too, such as natural resources (73 percent), energy availability (72 percent) and infrastructure (67 percent), and they gave equally high marks to the country’s skilled work force, productivity, and work ethic.

As in previous years, 90 percent said manufacturing is “important” or “very important” to the nation’s standard of living and America’s collective economic prosperity. And when asked what kind of business they would build if given the chance to create a thousand jobs for their community, the top answer was a manufacturing facility, ahead of every other sector, from healthcare to technology to energy.

That may be what the respondents feel would be best for their communities, but only 64 percent said they are confident that U.S. manufacturing can compete effectively in the global marketplace. Only 43 percent viewed manufacturing jobs as being as stable and secure as other kinds of jobs, while 80 percent saw manufacturing jobs as likely to be first in line for outsourcing. Not surprising, just 35 percent said they would encourage their children to seek a manufacturing career.
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