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What Will It Take To Bring Back Domestic Manufacturing Jobs?


When President Trump sat down with business leaders at the White House, he had a pointed message for them; bring back American manufacturing jobs, or risk a tax on imports if you don't. Manufacturing employment has been dropping in the U.S. for nearly four decades. And solutions have been scarce. Scott Paul heads the Alliance for American Manufacturing. He's one of 28 business and union leaders appointed to President Trump's new manufacturing jobs initiative. He joins me now in the studio. Thanks so much for coming in.

SCOTT PAUL: Rachel, good to be with you.

MARTIN: It's going to be your job to help Donald Trump fulfill a key campaign promise, to bring American manufacturing jobs back. How do you do that without compromising these companies, without making it onerous on them?

PAUL: It's a bit like walking a tightrope. Our economy now is very much orientated towards the service sector and the financial services sector. And having it reconfigured to focus on manufacturing will require some delicate pushing and pulling of policy levers ranging from education to trade to investments in infrastructure and innovation, and also getting that corporate mindset to focus on the fact that it might be possible to produce products in the United States.

MARTIN: So let's talk about automation because many economists will point to automation as the reason a lot of these manufacturing jobs have gone away. And the automation has come because it has made companies more innovative. They have figured out how to do more with less. And sometimes the less has meant robots, not humans. So how do you incentivize them to hire Americans without jeopardizing that innovation and those new efficiencies that they've discovered?

PAUL: Automation has always been a part and a feature of manufacturing. We're in a different era now. I'm less worried about automation. I actually think - because a robot costs the same in China, in Japan and in the United States. So what are the other advantages that we can bring to bear on this?

And I'm just going to point out that, you know, you have a guy like Elon Musk, who is also serving as part of this jobs initiative, CEO of Tesla, who has built or is building three factories in the United States. And you see a lot of robots in these factories. But you see thousands of human beings as well. So the idea that automation is the enemy of manufacturing job growth I think is very much misplaced.

MARTIN: The new jobs you're talking about, would they require higher education? The Obama administration, and Joe Biden in particular, talked a lot about the value of vocational training and the need for the federal government to invest in vocational training. Is that something that the Trump administration would pick up?

PAUL: I'm going to urge the Trump administration to do that. We're at the cusp of something new. And we're coming off of an era in manufacturing where we shed more than 50,000 manufacturing facilities and 7 million jobs. And it takes a while to turn around that ship.

MARTIN: When you re-evaluate free trade agreements and when you, perhaps in exceptional circumstances, decide to put a tariff on a product that was made overseas, inevitably, the price will go up. Do you think that that should just be expected, that that's the cost of creating American jobs, that consumers might have to pay higher prices?

PAUL: Yeah, I don't think a reconfiguration of producing more in the United States and consuming fewer imports is going to dramatically raise prices for consumers. Would the price of a TV go up on some level? It may but not to an extent that a consumer can't absorb.

MARTIN: What do you say to the manufacturing worker who's been unemployed for years who voted for Donald Trump because he believes that his job is going to come back?

PAUL: I know a lot of those people. And I - one thing that I will say troubled me about Trump's rhetoric on this is that he is imbuing this idea of a 1950s economy. And that's not where we're headed. That's not where we want to head. We need a 21st-century manufacturing economy. I also like to draw a line from "Field Of Dreams." If you build it, they will come.

If people think that there will be opportunities in manufacturing, they will want to get the training. They will want to enter that workforce. For an entire generation, almost, that hasn't been the case. I'd like to see that change.

MARTIN: Scott Paul is the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. He joined us here in our studios in Washington. Mr. Paul, thank you.

PAUL: Rachel, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.