U.S. factories have bled more than 2.8 million jobs since mid-2000, so job creation was the big issue during National Manufacturing Week in Chicago.
After 42 straight months of lost jobs, when will it turn around? The National Association of Manufacturers is predicting 250,000 new manufacturing jobs this year. U.S. manufacturing is poised to rebound by growing 6 percent, or faster than the overall economy, according to NAM.
Several plastics processors exhibiting at the Feb. 23-26 show said they expect to add employees this year.
Washington-based NAM said factories are adding equipment and computer systems, and job gains should follow soon. NAM President Jerry Jasinowski said that, even with the wild card of China, longer-term job recovery will be similar to the rebounds after the past two recessions, in 1991 and 1983. Those times, during the course of the recovery, manufacturing was able to regain about half of the jobs that had been lost, he said.
One-third of companies plan to add workers in 2004, according to NAM's annual survey, released at the show. But Jasinowski said job growth is a lagging indicator.
``We do not expect it to ramp up sharply for the next several months,'' he said at the event, which included the National Design Engineering Show.
``The recovery in manufacturing only really began in the fourth quarter of last year, so most companies are just beginning to feel it now - and some sectors more than others,'' Jasinowski said. Major productivity gains also have an impact, since companies can achieve the same output with fewer workers.
Presidential politics and hard scrutiny from economists are putting a spotlight on manufacturing. Many economists say job gains are the last remaining leg needed for a strong recovery in 2004, but job worries threaten to lower consumer confidence.
As the Super Tuesday primary loomed, leading Democratic candidates John Kerry and John Edwards grabbed hard hats and talked to factory workers. President George W. Bush visited ISCO Industries LLC, a plastic pipe company in Louisville, Ky. Workers presented Bush with a big ``W'' fashioned out of pipe.
Message to manufacturing: They care.
National Manufacturing Week speakers - ranging from Secretary of Commerce Don Evans to John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff the postman on Cheers - painted manufacturing in Norman Rockwell tones, emphasizing its part in American history.
Ratzenberger, the son of a truck driver in Bridgeport, Conn., and host of the Made in America show on the Travel Channel, made an impassioned plea to keep jobs here. ``There's never going to be a factory in China that sponsors your kid's Little League team,'' he said.
Jasinowski said now is a ``very good time'' to raise the profile of the often-ignored factory sector. But NAM leaders - who have praised Bush's tax cuts and his manufacturing policy issued in January - warned that protectionist forces are emerging that could slow free trade.
``That's a big mistake,'' Jasinowski said. ``You have to have an agenda that makes sense. And I think the agenda has to be one in which you want to level the playing field and get rid of imperfections there, but you don't want to close off trade with China.''
Some evidence emerged during National Manufacturing Week that the public image of free trade is tarnishing. Support dropped most rapidly among Americans making more than $100,000 a year, according to the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. They worry about a new wrinkle, the ``outsourcing'' of white-collar jobs to countries such as China and India.
NAM's approach has been to push Washington to make Bush's tax cuts permanent, reduce health-care costs and legal costs, while pushing China to let its currency float against the U.S. dollar and abide by World Trade Organization laws on intellectual property, government subsidies for industry and other issues.
Jasinowski said manufacturing jobs spawned by the recovery won't necessarily be ones coming back from China, but will come from improved U.S. competitiveness and American creativity. He compared the situation with worries in the 1980s about Japanese imports.
But a leading manufacturing advocate, Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., warned that research and development could follow the factory operations overseas, eroding U.S. living standards and even hurting national security.
On the trade-show floor, Stephen Murrill, president of Profile Plastics Corp., said he plans to hire this year. ``Our customers are buying more from us and we're finding new customers,'' he said. The Lake Bluff, Ill., thermoforming company now employs about 100.
Murrill said he is confident the U.S. manufacturing economy can create jobs, even as some move to other countries. ``It's a new set of economics,'' he said ``We just have to reinvent ourselves.''
Jeff Lippus, sales engineer at Mercury Plastics Inc., said the custom extrusion company in Middlefield, Ohio, has held sales and employment steady at about 250 for the past several years. ``We lost business to China, but we've been fortunate to win new work,'' he said.
When Mercury loses a contract, it retains production employees, using their expertise to help take costs out of other operations.
Another processor, Trostel Specialty Elastomers Group Inc., is ``definitely adding jobs,'' said Tom Jablonski, thermoplastics sales manager. ``We're seeing an increase that seems sustainable,'' he said. The company employs 175 in Lake Geneva, Wis., and Ankeny, Iowa.