Congress is prepared to put $1 billion on the table to fund up to 15 distinct networks designed to spawn innovation in manufacturing.
Maine is interested in the money, but given the level of competition we’re facing, we have no hope of getting in on the action without joining a consortium of states as part of a regional network.
And, thus, we have.
Wait. Just a minute.
Congress is prepared to put $1 billion on the table to fund up to 15 distinct networks designed to spawn innovation in manufacturing?
It is. And, yes, this is the same Congress that just Monday argued itself into shutting down the federal government over a spending disagreement.
Even though this Congress can’t agree on the Affordable Care Act, it can agree that innovation in manufacturing, which could move this country into a more productive and more competitive stance in the global marketplace, is critically important.
A billion dollars will be divided among the states that submit the best proposal to the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. Only 15 grants will be made, and only the best proposals for using technology to bolster the domestic production of goods will be considered.
Maine has joined other New England states to create the New England Consortium for Digital Manufacturing and Design Institute, which includes an array of business interests: defense contractors, manufacturers, universities, software designers, nonprofits and government agencies. And yes, politicians.
In Maine, participants include the University of Maine System, Maine Association of Manufacturing, Maine Composites Alliance, Bath Iron Works, Maine Fuel and Fiber Co., Falcon Performance Footwear, Iberdrola, Idexx and others, including all members of our congressional delegation.
The consortium has until Oct. 11 to file its application, which seeks $70 million in grant funding. Decisions on the proposals are supposed to be made quickly, with winners announced in December.
According to U. S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, each New England state will bring something different to the table. For example, New Hampshire will focus on intelligent machines and robotics. Connecticut will work on production. And Rhode Island, on computer networks and information. If it wins grant funding, the consortium will be Boston-based and each member will share its work with the others.
The goal of each partner is to design something new for manufacturing facilities to maximize productivity.
And, according to King, it’s an important goal because manufacturing jobs pay about double the salaries of those in the non-manufacturing sector.
In Maine, manufacturing has experienced a slide from 80,000 jobs in 2000 to 50,000 now. Similar losses, an average of 20 percent, have been seen in other states.
The best chance of regaining some of those lost jobs is to develop techniques to make us more competitive with other countries.
According to the U.S. Census, 11 million Americans are employed in manufacturing industries. That includes newspaper companies, which are classified by the IRS as manufacturers.
Five states make up 32.5 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the nation: California, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois. It would be fair to say that these powerhouse states, when it comes to competing for a piece of the $1 billion NNMI pie, are going to be tough to beat.
When it comes to per-capita employment and earnings from manufacturing, Indiana is tops in the country, which means that state will make a strong play for grants.
Across the country, manufacturing was ranked the fourth-largest employer in 2011, behind health care, social assistance services, retail jobs and hotel/food services.
The average annual salary in the manufacturing sector in this country is $52,330, which includes vacation pay. That equates to $29.75 in hourly wages in 2010, according to Census figures. The average hourly wage for non-manufacturing jobs was $27.47.
And even though manufacturing employs a lot of people and pays very well, it also consumes a lot of energy and materials. Reducing that consumption is a hoped-for result of the NNMI grants.
In 2011, manufacturing consumed $716.9 billion worth of petroleum and coal products, more than any other industry. That’s consumption worth trimming.
This nation’s manufacturing industry accounts for 59.7 percent of the value of all exported goods. If the concept of the NNMI grants — to revolutionize the way to make things — works, we might be able to drive up our exports, improve our economy and put more Americans back to work.
Today was scheduled to be this country’s second-annual Manufacturing Day, developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Unfortunately, because the DOC is shut down like the rest of the federal government, all scheduled events are canceled or postponed.
Perhaps the best way to observe the day is for Congress to manufacture a solution to its impasse. And let the rest of us get on with our work.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.