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Love it or hate it, the days of a vast low-tech manufacturing sector are gone. We can hope, wish, and dream they’ll come back as we knew them—but it’s not going to happen. Instead, we need to lead in the industries of the future. Fretting over the loss of the kinds of factory jobs our parents and their parents held will not bring those jobs back. Instead, we need to win the jobs of the future.
That’s the message U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer David Chavern has been touting across the country as he stumps for policies and practices that will accelerate the surge in advanced manufacturing in America.
In his hometown of Pittsburgh, Chavern recently sat down with students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University to talk about the research and engineering feats that have pioneered new advanced technologies—and have helped revive an industrial community whose history was steel but whose future is high-tech.
As traditional manufacturing deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s, Pittsburgh’s industrial core collapsed. It simply couldn’t compete with the low-wage competition that cropped up overseas. So steel mills closed down, jobs went away, residents moved elsewhere, and a once vibrant city seemed doomed to decline.
For years, Pittsburgh languished. But eventually, faced with the choice to innovate or die, Pittsburgh innovated. It began to relinquish the nostalgia for its steel manufacturing heritage and instead trained its industrial might toward a future built, in large part, on technology-driven advanced manufacturing.
How? Pittsburgh took stock of its remaining strengths, such as its established engineering base, innovation capacity, and universities like Carnegie Mellon and Pitt. It made the most of those advantages, nurturing the talent and feeding the curiosity of students and faculty, and investing heavily in research.
The concentration of skills and the commitment to cutting edge research has transformed the city into a tech hub and an advanced manufacturing center known for pioneering work in robotics and artificial intelligence. This is not only drawing top talent, but also tech titans like Google, Apple, and Intel. It’s spurring startups and new commercial activity that is boosting the city’s burgeoning economy and creating jobs and opportunity.
In his discussions with Carnegie Mellon students and faculty, Chavern urged them to stay on the leading edge of manufacturing technology—and to always push to do more.
The advanced manufacturing renaissance is well underway in the United States. It’s our advantage to lose. But it can still be lost.
Our global competitors are on our heels. Sure, wages are rising in China. But don’t think the Chinese aren’t adapting. Case in point: One of the country’s largest manufacturers, Foxconn, is working on a plan to integrate one million robots to take over much of the work currently done by Chinese workers—which will bring significant savings in labor costs and huge productivity gains.
The winners in global manufacturing will be the ones who are driving the progress—not those who are merely keeping up with it. The winners won’t be the ones who stop and look back—the winners will be focused on the future.
Those who adapt and evolve are the ones who will compete and win.
Pittsburgh has adapted and evolved. It’s competing. And its continued leadership will help America win.