How Can We Restore Our Competitve Edge in Manufacturing?

This topic resounded loud and clear when I read a recent article by Lee Iacocca, now 82 years old, the auto industry giant who turned the Chrysler Corporation profitable. Iacocca, an innovative leader and thinker, had a better way of maintaining and growing our position in the world and implemented strategies to revive the American auto industry. To this day he is seen as a savior to a failing and struggling industry. His leadership and “chutzpah” is what I admire most. His positive attitude and strong character remind me of the garment industry giants who moved with stealth-like actions to create products that were marketable and profitable.

The garment industry in New York during the late 70’s was always buzzing with new ideas, new products, and new technologies. The streets were crowded with rolling garment racks filled with the latest styles, delivery trucks overflowing with boxes and supplies, textile sales reps on their way to meet with designers, and throngs of people shopping the market. It appeared to have all the makings of a growing and prosperous industry providing a wide range of job opportunities for showroom sales reps, assistant designers, samplemakers, cutters, production sewing operators, factory managers, shipping clerks, and customer service staff to name just a few. 

Then the advent of poor economics and powerful unions arrived during the 1970’s and 1980’s. As workers demanded higher wages, profits shrunk and the apparel and sewn products industry slowly gave away it’s capabilities to manufacture in this country looking for cheaper labor overseas. The handwriting was on the wall. We  should have taken a lesson from history when we gave away our auto technology to Japan after World War II to help rebuild their economy only to discover 30 years later that Japanese cars began to exceed sales of American made automobiles. 

Well, here we are 30 years after establishing apparel manufacturing overseas and in the process we have depleted our ability to produce apparel and sewn products in this country. How many people actually know how to build or make something anymore? Where did all those skilled workers go? If they weren’t able to blend their skills into a new job or learn a new “marketable” skill, they just faded off into the sunset and were labeled as “unskilled and unemployable”. Where were they going to go to get a similar  job?……China, Japan, or Vietnam? Not likely.

What is it about manufacturing that has reduced working with our hands to a subserviant level? People today unfairly equate “labor” with dirty work or a lowly position that is beneath them to perform. Was it not those who created this republic who worked hard not only with their minds, but also with their hands? They built bridges, skyscrapers, factories, and machinery with a sense of pride and accomplishment that changed our country into one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. Our sense of curiosity and creativity to build something should be encouraged and nurtured. Manufacturing is not a dirty word. 

 Was it not Steve Jobs who tinkered with circuit boards and transistors in his garage to create the first working computer and went on to start Apple Computers? What kind of a disservice have we performed for the next generation who don’t even know how to fix a leaky faucet, sew a dress, build a deck, a house,  a bridge, or create a new product? Why are we not teaching our children how to build things and then create a business around the product? Are we not a society of miracle workers where nothing should stand in our way of a great idea?

We can restore our competitive edge in manufacturing by starting with a public announcement to all entrepreneurs, inventors, designers, and industry leaders to step up and begin teaching a younger generation of creative minds how to think outside the box, how to have a sense of pride and purpose in thier work, how to develop new products, and how to bring their products to market while providing a frame work in which to “tinker in the garage”. Are you up for the challenge?

Leave a Reply