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US manufacturing is key to competitiveness

US global competitiveness is slipping. But there is some good news: US manufacturing is in the midst of a revival. Preparing a skilled workforce for the manufacturing sector should be one of the Obama administration’s top economic priorities. This can boost competitiveness.

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Three recommendations to support advanced manufacturing were proposed in July 2012 by a committee of the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. This multi-stakeholder committee, made up of business leaders, academics, and scientists, called on President Obama to make good on his promise to create an “economy built to last” by “enabling innovation,” “securing the talent pipeline,” and “improving the business climate.”

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To build, attract, and retain talent, their report recommends an advertising campaign to promote manufacturing as an exciting career path. It suggests capitalizing on the skills of returning veterans, investing in community colleges, and creating partnerships between industry and these colleges, as well as promoting manufacturing fellowships and internships.

These are all key steps, but policymakers and the manufacturing industry should also encourage workers to re-focus their career choices toward high value-added, knowledge-intensive manufacturing. And America must shore up its educational curriculum in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Supplement this with more technical training during and after high school. The US must also continue to decrease student drop-out rates and keep working to improve the quality of high school education.

Despite the fact that more than half of the world’s 100 leading universities are American (and 8 of the top 10), American high school graduates rank poorly in international test scores: American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in mathematics, 14th in reading, and 17th in science (out of 34 countries) on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. No American president should sleep well with these results.

Since many experts acknowledge that advanced manufacturing is the best bet for creating high-paying jobs, with the additional advantages of contributing to innovation and reducing the US trade deficit, Mr. Obama would do well to heed the advice of his council. Education and training are critical to providing an appropriately skilled workforce that will ensure long-term sustainable growth and restore the US lead in competitiveness indices.

But more important than rankings, investing in the skills of the American people will put struggling lower and middle class Americans back to work. And with the US unemployment rate still hovering just below 8 percent, that’s an objective worth fighting for.

Dr. Suzanne Rosselet is a research fellow at IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. She specializes in world competitiveness and holds a degree in economics from Stanford University. She previously served as deputy director of IMD’s World Competitiveness Yearbook.


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