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Manufacturing Czar Could Provide Much-Needed Help

Monday, September 29, 2003 at 10:48 AM

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Northeast Ohio factory workers are in trouble. For generations they've depended on their jobs to buy homes, cars and raise families. But the number of manufacturing companies and jobs in northeast Ohio are disappearing. Since 1978, six million U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost. There is no indication the trend will reverse itself. But help could be on the way. Your Uncle Sam is creating a new government position to advocate for the troubled industry. An assistant secretary of manufacturing is expected to be named tomorrow. ideastream's Mike West has the story.

On Labor Day President George Bush visited used a union training center in Richfield, Ohio. That’s where he announced that someone would soon be named to the Assistant Secretary of Manufacturing post, as position that has come to be known as the “Manufacturing Czar”.

George Bush: So I told Secretary Don Evans of the Commerce Department I want his to appoint an assistant secretary to focus on the needs of manufactures, to make our manufacturing base is strong and vibrant. In other words, any part of a good recovery for the state of Ohio and other manufacturing states is got to be for the manufacturing sector.

According to government statistics, over 2.3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2001. 118,000 were in Ohio.

Bill Petti is the president of Cleveland Screw Products. His machines are humming right now, but they are not singing a happy tune. Petti has been in the business for 36 years and says it’s never been tougher.

Bill Petti: We’re very busy at this time but we lost money two years in a row. It’s been a complete hardship. The foreign competition and 9-11, the general manufacturing slow down has been very painful for our company.

Petti welcomes any effort by the government to help, but doesn’t think the new czar will make much difference.

Bill Petti: I’m not sure what he can do. I would like him to know that we manufactures think that we are overtaxed and over regulated and especially government regulations are extremely difficult for us and it makes foreign competition unfair competition.

Only about a dozen people work here, but they make up to $40,000 a year - good money in this economically troubled east side neighborhood. The company is hanging on, others are not so lucky. North Coast Machining is selling off pieces of its production line and going out of business. Owner Paul Maloney sits behind a desk in his all but abandoned Midtown factory.

Paul Maloney: Most of the people here have moved on, some are selling cars, some are retiring, some are fixing cars, some of the people are doing the best to stay in the business.

Even with the appointment of a manufacturing czar, Maloney is not optimistic. He says American companies simply can’t compete with cheap foreign labor.

Paul Maloney: There’s really almost nothing the government can do to change the fact that they are working less expensively.

At least one large manufacturer is also doubtful about the ability of the new czar to help.

Mitch Hecht: I wish I could say I was optimistic. But I’m coming from the perspective where we’ve created ISG out of a battery of companies that went through crisis and went through bankruptcy where there was a human toll. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m hopeful that our administration will raise the level of dialogue and the intensity of dialogue because our manufacturing sector is absolutely critical.

Mitch Hecht is the vice president of external affairs and public policy for the International Steel Group. He thinks part of the problem is that the president has competing priorities on world trade. He says the administration is demanding that the Chinese obey trade laws, but doesn’t want to offend their government. However, Senator George Voinovich is more optimistic. He first proposed the manufacturing czar idea early last summer.

George Voinovich: And there’s genuine panic by the manufacturing community over their future and the jobs created for manufacturing. They feel they’re under siege from environmental regulations, rising health care costs, litigation, escalating natural gas costs and the prospect of dramatically higher electricity and of course the whole issue of competition with china.

The senator says the new manufacturing leader will use the power of the government to deal with all those issues. He’s also asking congress for $47 million to fund the new department and wants a committee created to assure action.

George Voinovich: There isn’t any silver bullet that’s going to save manufacturing and jobs in this country. But what you need to do is to look at all of the things that impact on manufacturing in various departments of government and somebody’s gotta have the big picture and take them all into consideration.

In addition to the manufacturing czar, Commerce Secretary Don Evans plans to name an assistant secretary of trade. The move is response to accusations that the Chinese underpay workers, and manipulate their currency to make their goods artificially cheap. During a recent visit to Cleveland, the ambassador from China denied currency manipulation and said conditions are improving for Chinese workers.

Labor leaders are warning Americans to take notice of what’s happening to factory jobs. They say new technology also allows corporations to export service and computer work. Jobs that were once thought to be immune from cheap foreign labor. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.

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