One of the biggest challenges to manufacturers around the country, including in North Carolina, is the availability of a skilled workforce.
That’s according to Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the Washington- based industry advocacy group, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), who recently made a stop in North Carolina as part of the group’s State of Manufacturing Tour 2019.
There were seven other states on the tour; Colorado, Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, California and Arizona. NAM’s trip to North Carolina on Feb. 22, included visits with North Carolina Chamber officials and to manufacturers ABB Industrial Solutions and Proto Labs.
This wasn’t NAM’s first tour in North Carolina, which Timmons described as a “critical manufacturing state” that contributes the nation’s overall economic development.
Challenges, however, remain across the nation, including the need to fill jobs in the industry, a topic highlighted Timmons during his visit to the state. Timmons spoke with the Greater Wilmington Business Journal about workforce challenges and other issues.
What economic challenges do you see impacting North Carolina manufacturers and the industry overall?
TIMMONS: “I think the workforce challenge is the greatest. Finding people with the right skills to do the jobs. Because if we don’t have people doing the jobs, we’re not making the products that we can then sell.
And our goal is to sell them to not only domestic consumers but also consumers overseas, which brings me to my next challenge, and that is making sure that our trade laws are enforceable and also allow us to access markets overseas.
About 95 percent of the world’s customers actually live outside of the United States. So we want to sell to them as well. And that’s how we create jobs here in the United States.
I think I’d add a third level of that, and that’s our educational challenges and making sure that we’re aligning our curriculum to meet the needs of manufacturers.”
How does the association see tariffs impacting manufacturers, and what is its stance on the issue?
TIMMONS: “Tariffs always pres- ent challenges for manufacturers. It makes us less competitive and it drives up the cost of doing business.
However, when we’re looking at China and the problems that we’ve had for the last 25 years with China in terms of stealing our intellectual property, counterfeiting our products, forcing localization and local investments between our companies and Chinese investors – those things have harmed manufacturing in the United States fairly significantly.
So while we aren’t fans of increasing the cost of doing business, we do recognize that there has to be some changes in the behavior and the Chinese. We’re very pleased the [Trump] administration has gotten their attention and that there are talks going on. A year-and-a-half ago we called for the administration to negotiate a rules-based trade agreement with China. And we’re very pleased that it seems like there’s some progress being made on that.”
What is the association’s position on immigration?
TIMMONS: “We have actually put [an immigration proposal] out ourselves [released in February], and it’s a comprehensive proposal that deals with all aspects, not only security, but also aligning our immigration policies with workforce needs. And focusing quite frankly on compassion and understanding a little bit better what asylum means, what refugee status means and also what the rule of law means.
So I think we’ve presented something … I think the vast majority of Americans will see as a solutions- based proposal that can finally fix a very broken system. … There are 11 [million] to 13 million folks who are in this country without documentation. Manufacturers can’t hire them.
We have a workforce shortage, and we believe that if they want to be productive parts of the economy, we would like to be able to welcome them into our facilities. We also believe that we are a nation of immigrants, and immigration has made us stronger over time.
And so we want to honor that heritage. But at the same time, we understand that there have to be rules.”
What else has the association been advocating for?
TIMMONS: “From a national perspective, one of the things that would certainly impact North Carolina, would be improvements to our nation’s infrastructure.
And there’s actually another plan that we released over two years ago called ‘Building to Win,’ ... we’re updating it, and that should be coming out shortly. It’s really a call to action to focus on our nation’s infrastructure needs.”