Americans have come a long way from the depths of the Great Recession. Our businesses have created 12.1 million jobs over the past 61 months – the longest sustained stretch of job creation in our nation’s history – and a key driver of that economic recovery has been a sector that helped build this country’s middle class – manufacturing.
In fact, the Commerce Department reports that American manufacturing now accounts for nearly 20 percent of our nation’s economic growth when adjusted for inflation, and since 2010’s economic low point, manufacturers have created more than 860,000 new jobs.
Still, while American manufacturing is newly resurgent, there’s much more we can do to build on its momentum.
That’s why last Congress we started a campaign called Manufacturing Jobs for America (MJA) to focus on four key issues: investing in America’s workforce, expanding access to capital, opening up markets abroad for American goods, and crafting a national manufacturing strategy.
The initiative brought together 27 Senate Democrats to introduce 36 different manufacturing bills – nearly half of which were bipartisan. Eight of those bills are now law, including our bill to create a national manufacturing strategy that will for the first time lay out a proactive, comprehensive, and long-term policy for investing in and strengthening American manufacturing. The Administration has also come forward with many great ideas and initiatives, from nine new manufacturing innovation institutes around the country to new Department of Labor job skills programs that would strengthen job training and apprenticeship. It is our hope that MJA can continue to play an important role investing in and scaling up those ideas so they can have a national impact.
Aside from the challenge of moving legislation through Congress, we also face a serious problem when it comes to supporting manufacturing. That’s because modern perceptions of manufacturing are still based on images of the factory floors of the past – where laborers worked for low wages in dirty, often dangerous environments performing low-skilled tasks.
The typical American manufacturing facility today couldn’t be more different, because today’s manufacturing jobs require much higher skill levels than ever before. Modern manufacturing work requires strong technical training in math and science; it demands workers with critical thinking skills and the ability to solve problems and work collaboratively.
It’s no surprise then, that 21st century American manufacturing jobs are good jobs. They pay more in wages and benefits than jobs in any other sector and contribute more to local economies. Manufacturers also account for 70 percent of our nation’s private sector research and development and 90 percent of our patents. They’re critical to America’s innovative capacity and economic competitiveness.
By passing bipartisan manufacturing bills into law last Congress, we showed that by putting good ideas forward, we can still work together to make them a reality. That’s why we’ve come together once again to re-launch MJA for the 114th Congress. Although there are many issues that divide Democrats and Republicans, we’re hopeful that manufacturing can continue to be something that brings us together. This year, we’re building on the momentum we started last time around with a similar selection of bills and ideas.
The bipartisan Manufacturing Universities Act, for instance, would go a long way toward helping our universities train engineers for the manufacturing jobs of today and tomorrow. It would designate 25 “Manufacturing Universities” across the country and invest $5 million in federal funding into each school’s engineering program each year for four years. These investments would help them align their curricula and training with the skills that local manufacturers are looking for. In Delaware, Wisconsin, and states across the country, it would help businesses create and fill good manufacturing jobs by ensuring our technical and engineering students have the skills they need to go seamlessly from the classroom to the workplace.
In addition to improving the career readiness of university graduates, we can do more to ensure high school graduates are prepared with the skills they’ll need to pursue a career in manufacturing. That’s why MJA includes another bipartisan bill called the Career Ready Act, which encourages states to keep track of school districts’ use of “career readiness indicators” – factors that demonstrate a student’s preparedness for postsecondary education and the workforce, such as career and technical education (CTE) course completion and the number of students earning postsecondary credentials while in high school.
Currently, all 50 states track districts’ efforts to instill academic knowledge for college preparation, but less than half of states publicly report on career readiness indicators. By tracking and publishing this data, businesses and workforce leaders will be better-informed about the level of career preparation in a given state or region. Additionally, the Career Ready Act will allow students to be career-ready on graduation day with a solid foundation for any further training needed to enter the field of their choice.
We believe that American manufacturing is undergoing a revival. As the home to the most innovative businesses, the best universities, and the most productive workers on the planet, 21st century manufacturing is built to thrive in America.
The challenge then, is to take advantage of the opportunities before us.
Despite the progress we’ve made, Boston Consulting Group estimates that there are currently between 80,000–100,000 unfilled high-skilled manufacturing jobs and that this gap will only grow, rising to as many as 875,000 unfilled jobs by 2020. We should view those unfilled jobs as an incredible opportunity, especially in a country that has struggled with joblessness in recent years. Those jobs are there for the taking, and we strongly believe that if we focus and work together to give American workers the skills they need, their talents will more than meet the demand.
As a country, we need to invest in American manufacturing and in American workers, and Manufacturing Jobs for America is our best chance to do that in Congress.
Chris Coons is a Democratic Senator from Delaware and Tammy Baldwin is a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin. They are the co-chairs of the Manufacturing Jobs for America campaign.