The report released last week on manufacturing in Pennsylvania – along with recommendations by Gov. Tom Corbett's hand-picked advisory council – is filled with predictable tactics, such as improving technical education, lowering taxes and reducing regulations. That's what you'd expect from a group dominated by old-school industries like metalworking (six of 18 industry members on the council) and paper products.
The ideas aren't bad, they just don't sound original or daring; more like pandering to industry's pet peeves than challenging business and government to think hard about the future.
There seems no doubt that American workers have fallen behind in the skills required in modern manufacturing, so better training is a no-brainer. Even companies that make mundane-sounding products can benefit from innovative production techniques requiring math and computer savvy.
So, the recommendation to offer tax incentives to companies that establish apprenticeship programs stands out. This is an area where employers and – dare I say it? – unions could work together for better results, as they do in Germany. Unfortunately, the report hardly mentions potential contributions by workers, other than as drones to be trained and plugged in where industry wants them.
"People really need pretty advanced skills," said Joseph M. Lane, vice president of enterprise development at Ben Franklin Technology Partners in Bethlehem, a quasi-public organization that works with new and existing businesses to promote technological approaches to efficiency and problem-solving.
The glaring omission in the governor's report is minimal mention of emerging industries with the potential to provide employment for workers left behind as heavy manufacturers streamline their production lines or lose business to low-cost foreign competitors. Barely over two pages of the 29-page report are devoted to "Innovation Recommendations."
Even what's there is generic gobbledygook directed at established companies, like "Develop CEO growth forums that allow for peer-to-peer mentoring and collaboration."
Where is the recommendation to support new high-growth businesses? "There certainly is a lot going on with new, very high-tech manufacturing," Lane says. "(These) are going to be the established manufacturers of the future," using "very sophisticated technologies" and producing products with high profit margins.
I'm not arguing against reasonable measures to support established manufacturers. Their products will be in demand for years to come and their employees generally earn good wages. The Ben Franklin organization recognizes this and devotes about half its effort to helping these businesses become more efficient. That seems like time and money well-spent.
The report's section on developing a statewide energy plan – which is deemed critical – reveals a myopic focus on natural gas while paying lip service to other power sources. While gas certainly has many present benefits to its users – notably heavy manufacturers – it's dangerous to bet the house on an industry that is Pennsylvania-based only in the source of its raw material, which, no matter how abundant, has a finite lifespan.
Given the administration's emphasis on cost-cutting, even the best of these recommendations may not move off the printed page, since nearly every one requires spending state money … funding that is unavailable as long as gas drillers get a free ride and a chosen few, like the proposed Shell plant in western Pennsylvania, get subsidies.
Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business editor, may be reached at [email protected] or 570-970-7157.