U.S. manufacturing has been one of the “bright spots” in the economy, adding 500,000 jobs in the past 21/2 years, said acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.
Blank recently visited custom injection molder Wilco Molding Inc., in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, to talk about boosting American manufacturing and reshoring jobs. Joining Blank in a July 24 panel discussion on the subject were Wilco owner and President Kim Williams; Tom Dustman, international sales director for machine tooling manufacturer Sunnen Products Co.; and Denny Coleman, president and CEO of the St. Louis County Economic Council.
The U.S. manufacturing sector has seen its highest growth level in 15 years, Blank said, and new manufacturing jobs offer higher pay and more security.
American companies are increasingly “insourcing” — investing in the U.S. instead of other countries, particularly China — citing U.S. advantages like its stronger financial footing, robust supply chain, lower energy costs and strong intellectual property rights, Blank told the group of Wilco employees, local business leaders and journalists gathered for the event.
A case in point: Wilco recently snagged a contract with a Chinese company that chose to have its products made in the U.S. because of China's lax IP laws, Williams said.
As the cost of labor in China continues to rise, U.S. manufacturers also are becoming more cost-competitive, he said. And there are drawbacks in working with Chinese companies, such as the price of shipping, the logistics of a 12-hour time difference and potential problems with material regulation, he said.
Although the future of U.S. manufacturers may look bright, they still face some hurdles.
“No one doubts we have much more work to do before the economy is really back to the level of growth and activity that we all want to see,” Blank said.
Some of that work includes extending middle-class tax cuts and offering tax breaks to companies that bring jobs back to the U.S. — two plans proposed by President Barack Obama, she said.
The government also needs to support innovation, a cornerstone of American manufactur- ing, and focus on rebuilding the country's aging infrastructure, she said.
“Red tape” can make it difficult for smaller businesses to expand and hire new workers, Williams added, speaking from experience, and some problems need to be tackled on a state and local level.
A recent minor expansion at Wilco hit a wall when the company could not obtain the necessary permits for the new room, he said. Wilco purchased two new machines and built a small, three-walled addition to the factory to house one of them. But because of the permit problems, the machine is currently unusable.
The numerous applications and other paperwork have added thousands of dollars in costs to the already $300,000 investment, Williams said.
Another challenge manufacturers face is recruiting skilled workers. Sunnen's Dustman and Williams agree that the perception of factory work makes it tough to attract young people to manufacturing jobs.
People seem to think that factories are hot, dimly lit and bad for workers' health, and that jobs require wielding heavy tools and machinery, instead of the air-conditioned, highly computerized workplaces they really are, Dustman said.
“Jobs are very good-paying. It's a good environment. … The perception of manufacturing is not the reality of the business,” Dustman said.
As older workers retire, it's becoming harder to replace them, Williams added — especially in Wilco's Die-Tool-Machine Co. division, where becoming a skilled mold maker requires years of apprenticeships and training.
Blank noted that the United States is falling behind in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and needs to attract students, especially women and under-represented minorities, to those fields.
The country also needs to invest in education at all levels — from students attending community college to learn how to run machines, to graduate students working to innovate manufacturing, Blank said.
Even if politicians tend to focus on the short term during election years, the U.S. needs to look at investments that will help its businesses long-term, she added.
“We need more good-quality products stamped with Made in America and we want more Americans proud to get up every day and go to work at their jobs,” Blank said. “In short, we want America to retain its place as the most competitive player in the global economy.”
Wilco's group of companies includes Wilco Molding, Wilco Die-Tool-Machine and Wilco Automation LLC. The firm, which does not disclose sales, employs 26.
The founder of the family-owned business, Stanley Williams Jr., passed away May 24. In an introduction to Blank's speech, Kim Williams paid tribute to his father.
“He would be proud to see everybody here. He really would.”