It has been nearly two years since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, a milestone of note because of what hasn't happened during the time it normally takes elephants to gestate. NAFTA has not given birth to a huge exodus of jobs from the United States to Mexico. For the period ended Sept. 30, the Department of Labor attributes the loss of slightly more than 42,000 jobs to the treaty. The actual number is likely higher because the government's figure includes only workers who have enrolled in and qualified for a federal job-retraining program as a result of a NAFTA-related employment loss. But thousands of other jobs - exactly how many is unclear - have been created in this country as a drop in labor costs has resulted in lower-priced products, greater demand and increased sales.
Nationally, the average unemployment rate is a healthy 5.5 percent. It is higher in areas dominated by large pools of under-educated and unskilled labor, but that persistent social problem is not a product of NAFTA. Nor is the demographic contraction of the pool of American workers between the ages of 18 and 34.
In much of the United States, as Plastics News reported Oct. 9 in a special report on site selection, labor shortages are a problem. Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., have a 3 percent unemployment rate. It is 3.5 percent in Iowa and also less than 4 percent in Columbus, Ohio, where the shortage is hindering economic growth, according to Professor James Newton, an economist at Franklin University and author of a quarterly regional economic forecast.
Analysts generally agree that NAFTA's effect on Mexico cannot effectively be assessed because of the impact of its currency crisis and recession of the past 10 months. But for Mexican companies looking at boosting export sales, the treaty, with its guarantee of lower tariffs, is not a bad contract. Given adequate time, it should help reduce Mexico's disappointing high unemployment rate.
Ohio sets an example
Gov. George Voinovich's presence Oct. 8-9 at K'95 in Dusseldorf, Germany, underscored not only Ohio's recognition of the importance of the plastics industry, but also the efforts of industry executives to develop a relationship with that state's officials.
Voinovich, the first U.S. governor to attend the plastics exhibition, also interceded 18 months ago to help convene the Ohio Plastics Summit, a forum designed to discuss issues and improve communications between industry executives and state officials.
The April 1994 Ohio summit, the first meeting of its type, according to Voinovich, was a long overdue introductory and informational meeting between public officials and industry representatives in one of the country's leading plastics states.
Voinovich's K'95 visit might suggest to other governors intent on economic development that a funny thing happened on the way to last year's Ohio forum: Participants discovered the plastics industry is huge and still growing.