(April 14, 2003) — The tooling industry might have thought the hard work was over. Associations and individual toolmakers might have believed they had convinced government officials that there is a deeply rooted problem with an industry still losing jobs at a shocking pace.
After all, a much-needed investigation by the U.S. International Trade Commission had been launched last year, and the findings in many ways connected with what the industry was suffering. It was a pipeline to possible legislative action, a door opening to Washington politics, a way to build awareness.
Instead, judging from a report released last week by the Commerce Department, possible solutions have vaporized. No end game seems to be in sight.
The report, with conclusions drawn from ITC data, seems to be nothing more than a way to promote Commerce Department export programs. Some of the proposed solutions would be a bit laughable, if only laughing didn't hurt so much:
Are U.S. toolmakers being maimed by foreign competition? Well, we at Commerce have export-development programs so you can pursue foreign sales in China and other faraway places.
And we at Commerce would welcome the opportunity to work with the tooling industry to develop seminars for those unfamiliar with exporting molds. And we would like to help you participate in overseas trade shows or in forming trade missions.
While many struggling toolmakers might find it difficult — and, in some cases, ridiculous — to open a plant in Shanghai when they can barely support their work here, the report also touches on some subjects closer to toolmakers' future. Yet, it does not go far enough to salve toolmakers' wounds.
For one, it talks of a partnership between the government and groups including the National Tooling & Machining Association. That would be a good first step. But then, it adds that the “partnership” would promote the exportation of U.S. tooling. You have to wonder again about the validity of that argument.
And it dangles the carrot of offering toolmakers a “seat at the table” for formulating trade policy. Again, that is something many toolmakers have wanted. But in the report, that seat means toolmakers can serve on an existing Industry Sector Advisory Committee.
What has happened to some of the industry's key issues? Some toolmakers would like to see government assistance or tax incentives for training and buying capital equipment. Some would like export duties on foreign goods. Those issues still dangle.
At least the report shows that the government is listening. It also proves the need for a cohesive industry push to aim officials at some real talking points. Much work, much awareness-building, still must be done, both in Washington and at the local level.
A fear is that the investigation has become more of a public-relations exercise than meaningful work. But there is opportunity to steer the discussion back to real issues.
The government is listening. Are toolmakers ready to carry this battle even further? Or is it enough to hear more empty rhetoric from Washington?
Joseph Pryweller is an Akron-based senior reporter whose beats include mold making.