Quality Magazine

Saving U.S. Jobs

May 19, 2003
Blue-collar unions such as the United Steelworkers of America have long pushed for stiff trade barriers against low-priced foreign competition. The unions see this as a way to save American jobs. And the Bush Administration's recent move to pursue tariffs on imported steel marks a victory for that kind of thinking.

Some believe the Administration effort, if successful, will do more harm than good for the U.S. economy. Restrictions on steel imports will raise prices for U.S. steel-consuming industries, making them less competitive in world markets, ultimately costing more jobs than they save, these voices say.

However it plays out, one thing is certain: When the objective is saving U.S. jobs, a far better approach lies in making industries more competitive, not less so. And one way to do that involves increased worker training.

Instead of urging tariffs, some union leaders are taking a much more enlightened approach to job preservation. The Chicago Federation of Labor, for example, which represents about a half million factory workers, is stepping up its emphasis on training for its members. The organization last year won a $750,000 federal grant to study workplace training in key manufacturing industries, and plans to work with employers in filling training gaps.

These union leaders recognize that with the right training and sufficient capitalization, jobs can be kept in the United States that might otherwise have gone abroad. For manufacturing employers, teaching workers the skills they need to keep up with a changing workplace is key to competitiveness and the quality of goods produced. That's the reason that Quality runs Training Trends each month--a column devoted to improving training methods in manufacturing.

When it comes to better training, it may not only be jobs that are at stake. The future of entire U.S. industry segments could hinge on more and better training to develop more skilled workers.

In several industries, including custom precision manufacturing, the shortage of skilled workers is severe and getting worse. Small businesses that employ highly skilled workers including machinists, tool and die makers, mold makers and others are facing grave concerns about an aging workforce. As these skilled craftsmen retire, they are not being replaced by younger workers entering the trades. And according to Matt Coffey, president of the National Tooling and Machining Association, the U.S. precision custom manufacturing industry could be extinct within 10 to 12 years if decisive action is not taken to boost training for skilled workers. H.R. 877, a bill introduced this year by U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., is designed to address this concern. Known as the Skilled Workforce Enhancement Act, H.R. 877 would provide a $15,000 tax credit, per trainee, per year, for small businesses that train apprentices in two- to four-year programs.

The bill, which would not replace or supplant existing training programs, is only one example of something that government can do to help keep manufacturing jobs at home. It is worthy of our support.

It's a far superior approach to saving U.S. jobs than throwing up trade barriers.

Wes Iversen, Editor