Anyone who has helped organize an industry event in the past couple of years knows the challenge of filling seats.
Economic and travel concerns are among the many causes of dwindling attendance at industry conferences. Undaunted by the possibility of low registrations, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., in conjunction with Injection Molding Magazine, set forth a great agenda for a breakfast session that was held June 25 at NPE: “Crossroads Forum: The China Factor.” Little did we know that we were going to sell out our maximum 180-capacity room, requiring a move to a space that ultimately had a standing-room-only crowd of some 350!
Concern about China, however, is really the tip of the proverbial iceberg resulting in the large attendance. While the United States certainly has a trade deficit in plastics products with China, the biggest problem — and threat — is not just imports but the usurpation of the markets for those products. And China is not the only country taking over some of these markets.
At issue here is something much larger: the future of U.S. manufacturing, as well as the future of the U.S. plastics industry. In the past few years, much has changed for manufacturing, which in the past 30 years has produced the highest living standards in history. Today, however, devastating economic conditions and deleterious domestic and international policies have coalesced to drive plastics companies out of business or offshore, force workers into unemployment and, in just two years, cause the industry's $894 million trade surplus in plastics products to plummet to a $1.4 billion trade deficit.
Concern about the future of the U.S. plastics industry has propelled SPI into full gear. Starting with a China “fly-in” in May, which brought plastics industry executives to Washington to meet with lawmakers about trade issues, SPI members learned straight from pro-manufacturing congressional leaders that policy makers in Congress and the White House just don't get it.
They don't get that manufacturing benefits the entire U.S. economy and prompts “spill-overs” that benefit all Americans. According to “Securing America's Future: The Case for a Strong Manufacturing Base,” released in June by the National Association of Manufacturers, manufacturing spawns more economic activity and jobs than any other economic sector and is responsible for nearly two-thirds of private-sector research and development. SPI helped underwrite the NAM study.
Productivity gains from manufacturing, according to the study, average twice the annual productivity gains of the rest of the private sector and enable Americans to do more with less and provide higher wages for employees.
Manufacturing offers rewarding employment and pays the taxes for regional economic growth and tax receipts at all levels of government. [To read the complete study visit www.nam.org/future.]
The study's bottom line: If the U.S. manufacturing base continues to shrink at its present rate and the critical mass is lost, the manufacturing innovation process will shift to other global centers. Once that happens, a decline in U.S. living standards in the future is virtually assured.
We need to help lawmakers — or compel them — to understand the economic importance of plastics manufacturing. Plastics processing is the nation's fourth-largest manufacturing industry. Providing 1.5 million jobs and more than $320 billion in annual shipments, the plastics industry can be found in every state and provides products that impact and enhance every aspect of our lives.
The growth of plastics employment and shipments has far outpaced growth in all other manufacturing sectors combined. Given the widespread use of plastics throughout our lives, the ramifications of a continued decline in plastics manufacturing will permeate the entire U.S. economy.
That is why SPI has initiated a petition to lawmakers, stressing that “Plastics Manufacturing Matters!”
NPE was the launching pad for this grass-roots effort to collect thousands of signatures from plastics executives and employees throughout the country.
The petition appeals to the nation's leaders to support public policy measures that will ensure the future of an integral American industry and to circumvent the loss of technology and capability that is critical to the future of our nation's economic vitality, military strength and quality of life.
The plastics industry will step up to the challenge by continuing to innovate and increase productivity.
However, we cannot win the battle alone. We must have our nation's leaders recognize the importance of the entire manufacturing industry to the overall economic health of the United States and take action. And we need industry leaders to take action, as well.
During NPE 2003, SPI collected more than 2,000 signatures, but with an industry as large as plastics, we certainly could, and should, collect many thousands more.
All industry leaders are encouraged to read the petition and sign it at www.plasticsindustry.org/ feedback/pmmsurvey.htm. They also are urged to promote the petition to all their employees and suggest that they sign it, too, as the future of the industry is not just an issue for chief executive officers.
As you may imagine, there was no shortage of passion present during the NPE Crossroads Forum: China Factor. Now is the time to take advantage of that passion and get involved. The plastics industry is extremely diverse.
Hopefully, the challenges that face the plastics industry will bring the industry together to send a strong united message that Plastics Manufacturing Matters!
Anderson is strategic planning and industry relations officer for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.