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Are the manufacturing jobs ever coming back?

With Detroit declaring bankruptcy and the president getting set to return focus on the economy after a series of distractions, it seems fair to ask whether all the talk about manufacturing playing a significant role in boosting middle-class fortunes is more than just talk. The talk certainly is well intentioned. American prosperity was built on a strong manufacturing foundation. High-paying jobs in post-war manufacturing put a lot of buying power into the middle class. And demand seems to be the most critical feature missing from the still-sluggish recovery.

With Detroit declaring bankruptcy and the president getting set to return focus on the economy after a series of distractions, it seems fair to ask whether all the talk about manufacturing playing a significant role in boosting middle-class fortunes is more than just talk.

The talk certainly is well intentioned. American prosperity was built on a strong manufacturing foundation. High-paying jobs in post-war manufacturing put a lot of buying power into the middle class. And demand seems to be the most critical feature missing from the still-sluggish recovery.

But as I look at the news each day in our corner of industry, it also seems clear that for American manufacturers to compete with low-cost labor offshore, automation is a critical part of the equation. While any manufacturing expansion ends up creating jobs, it's not clear that a resurgence in America could now ever produce enough jobs to be decisive.

In Denver last Friday, a couple of colleagues and I took the opportunity to visit Intertech Plastics, a growing company that's also a strong corporate citizen. The occasion was a visit by new Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who was embarking on a national listening tour of businesses.

With a successful business background of her own, Secretary Pritzker outlined a desire to listen and partner with business to address the issues that business leaders think would enhance competitiveness. She was accompanied by U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), who has also asked for feedback from Colorado businesses on his own, and helped put some of their ideas into action. Pritzker indicated that Bennet suggested the tour was a good way for her to hear first-hand what business owners think would help them.

Senator Bennet is right. It's critical that a constructive dialog take place. Gridlock in Washington may be a fact of life presently. But there's no reason that if the White House says it's listening that business shouldn't be talking.

Whether manufacturing in the U.S. can produce enough jobs to put a meaningful number of people back to work and boost demand is an open question.

What's not in question is that business has a role to play in shaping a reasonable and focused conversation that can benefit us all. More jobs are better than fewer jobs, and more manufacturing is better than less. That would seem to be something everyone can agree on.

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