A Blueprint For Helping Black Manufacturing Communities Recover from Industrial Flight

By Gerald Taylor
Targeted infrastructure investment is one way to create new jobs and rebuild Black communities hurt by deindustrialization. And when Buy America preferences are in place — as is being done in the case of the construction new New York Tappan Zee Bridge (above) — we can ensure tax dollars are invested in American communities and create even more jobs. | Photo courtesy New York State Thruway Authority

Infrastructure investment, workforce development, and worker-friendly trade will benefit everyone.

Editor's note: The Alliance for American Manufacturing recently unveiled a new report, Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities. Written by research fellow Gerald Taylor, the report makes the case that while all manufacturing communities suffered because of major job losses starting in the 1970s, Black workers were disproportionately hurt. In the essay below — the third in a series of three blog posts — Taylor looks at realistic policies that can help Black communities rebuild. Be sure to read the first post and second post.

The economic risks are too perilous—and the potential economic gains are too great—to wait any longer to address the devastation caused by industrial flight. What follows is a discussion of three key areas—infrastructure investment, workforce development, and worker-friendly trade policy—where smart and effective actions, investments, and policies can help to repair the damage done to Black workers, families, and communities by deindustrialization.

Because the problems that these solutions are meant to address are so widespread and have been so damaging, everyone, regardless of social status or economic standing or political persuasion, should have an interest in seeing solutions implemented. And this fact can serve as a wellspring of optimism. With the right kinds of outreach, awareness-raising, and education about these issues, meaningful attempts to address them could become a reality sooner rather than later.

Infrastructure Investment

America’s infrastructure is now, and has been for decades, in an astonishing state of disrepair. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the United States scored a D+ on its infrastructure report card in 2013, and hasn’t scored higher than a C since the first iteration of the report card in 1988. The ASCE recommends heavy infrastructure investment, to the tune of $200 billion annually until 2020, just to bring the country’s grade up to a B.

Deindustrialized communities offer some of the most distressing examples of the effect that inadequate infrastructure can have on everyday life. One obvious way to target those communities for improvement is simply to invest in them directly, ensuring that ambitious and smart infrastructure projects that follow Buy America guidelines are begun in those regions.

Report after report demonstrates that there are few better ways to invest federal funds than in infrastructure, and a recent study by the Duke University Center on Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness demonstrates how Buy America preferences can work to maximize the potential gains from such investments.

For example, in New York the new Tappan Zee Bridge, which follows Buy America and is being built with American-made steel, has created more than 7,700 jobs and has a total cost of $3.9 billion. It is expected to finish on time and last 100 years without major structural maintenance. Compare that to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, built with steel from China. It finished 12 years late, created jobs for 3,000 workers in China and was $3.9 billion over budget. It has been plagued with safety problems.

Targeted investment in deindustrialized communities can help them not only by repairing their crumbling infrastructures, but also by connection them more fully to regional economies, opening up possibilities for their residents to take advantage of more robust economic and social opportunities in the process.

The economic impact of a nationwide surge of ambitious and effective infrastructure projects would be substantial. And by ensuring that such projects materialize in deindustrialized communities as well, it is possible to advance the causes of social, economic, and racial justice by improving the lots of some of America’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.

Workforce Development

The skill set required to fill today’s manufacturing jobs is enormously different than it was decades ago. Modern jobs require advanced, STEM-oriented knowledge in fields like welding, electronics, robotics, and computer programming.

There is currently a well-documented and troubling shortage of workers with the required skill set. But this fact should not be understood as an indictment of those workers—indeed, a longstanding neglect of effective workforce development by employers, marked by a general unwillingness to hire and then train workers for the jobs that are needed—has left the talent pipeline in American manufacturing lacking the depth and skill required to maximize America’s gains in the manufacturing renaissance.

This neglect is made all the more troubling by the fact that there are currently hundreds of thousands of jobs that go unfilled due to the lack of adequately skilled employees, and that because of the impending retirement of a large number of baby boomers, there are likely to be millions more in coming years.

For ideas or strategies for combating these difficulties, America can do little better than look to Germany, which even today remains a global manufacturing powerhouse. Thanks to considerable institutional investment and support, as well as its celebrated ‘dual training’ system of vocational education, which combines classroom learning with hands-on training, Germany has managed not only to demand premium prices for its steadily increasing stream of exports, but also to maintain an exceptionally well-trained and compensated manufacturing workforce.

Because the problems that these solutions are meant to address are so widespread and have been so damaging, everyone, regardless of social status or economic standing or political persuasion, should have an interest in seeing solutions implemented.

One element that is often left out of talk about workforce development is the fact that the future workforce will be unprecedented in its diversity. A “minority-majority” workforce will soon be a reality, with the population as a whole to follow suit shortly thereafter. This fact, combined with the consistent underrepresentation of people of color in STEM fields, suggests that worries about workforce development may actually be more pronounced for minority students and workers.

As such, while the U.S. certainly needs to continue expanding its apprenticeship programs and establish new manufacturing hubs, as well as support the colleges and universities that provide critical training for middle and high-skill manufacturing jobs, it should combine these efforts with comprehensive outreach campaigns and financial support programs aimed at ensuring robust participation by communities of color in the future manufacturing workforce.

Worker-Friendly Trade Policy

Even ambitious programs of infrastructure investment and workforce development will not decrease the trade deficits that continue to weaken the American economy. In order to maximize the effectiveness of the above recommendations, it is vital that adjustments be made to America’s behavior in the global economy.

The U.S. should first rethink its social, economic, and political priorities when it comes to trade agreements and partnerships. Free trade agreements have been made largely as a way to strengthen ties with allies and to lower costs to employers. While these are admirable motives, and though some economic gains have been made as a result of these agreements, the long-term effects of these deals had been to undermine the American manufacturing workforce. Deals already on the books, as well as those deals that America may enter into in the future, must be made only after a thorough and long-term analysis of the effects of those deals has been performed, and only if those effects are deemed to be both positive and worker-friendly.

It is also crucial that the United States combats unfair trade practices, like currency manipulation and import dumping, in the global marketplace. China, which established Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the United States in 2000 and entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, has been an especially bad offender on both counts.  Unfair import competition with China since 2000 explains as much as a quarter of the contemporaneous decline in American manufacturing employment, and trade deficits with China have cost over 1 million people of color their jobs in 2011 alone.

While making these changes to trade policy and behavior is not likely to yield direct results for deindustrialized communities, taming those negative influences will make it possible to maximize the potential gains to be had by the above recommendations. Further, the United States would strengthen its economy by increasing for its workers, saving existing jobs, and creating new ones.

Manufacturing workers and the communities in which they live have endured a decades-long ordeal with deindustrialization and its associated effects, and black workers, families, and communities have felt these effects with disproportionate intensity. But it is not too late for legislators, policymakers, and community leaders to take action and to help these people and their struggling communities begin to recover. And following something like the above agenda would be an admirable first step not only toward strengthening America’s economy, but also toward social, economic, and racial justice for all of the country’s workers and communities.