A recent report published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cites multiple reasons for the decline in U.S. manufacturing over the past 30 years. In the last decade alone, the United States has lost about a third of its manufacturing jobs.
The report was the product of a task force of 20 MIT faculty members, including engineers, scientists, economists and policy specialists, including one Nobel Prize recipient. They looked at over 250 companies in several states to see how to improve the nation’s manufacturing ability as well as its ability to bring new processes and products to market faster.
What’s needed, the report states, is for the U.S. to rebuild its “industrial ecosystem” and it cites Germany as a model of what such an ecosystem looks like. In Germany manufacturers “are embedded in dense networks of trade associations, suppliers, technical schools and applied research centers all with easy reach.”
Larger Companies’ Vanishing Role
The report also says that a key reason that kind of ecosystem no longer exists here is because the larger U.S. companies that once supplied many of America’s (and the world’s) manufactured products:
- Have downsized manufacturing operations and research and development in order to raise their stock price
- Have pressured smaller suppliers to produce goods more inexpensively, so these suppliers have less money to spend on their own R&D
- No longer serve as the nexus of money, talent and ideas they once did to spur entrepreneurship
The report does not say that these larger companies acted like mentors to smaller firms and entrepreneurs but in many respects that is what they were. The Boston Globe’s coverage of the MIT findings puts it this way:
Corporate research efforts had spillover effects, benefiting other research, ideas, and products. The suppliers, subcontractors, and machine shops that sprung up around the big companies not only supported their production and innovation but also that of smaller companies and entrepreneurs.
Rebuilding an ecosystem can take a long time. As the MIT report states: “It’s not just that factories stand empty and crumbling; it’s that critical strengths and capabilities have disappeared that once served to bring new enterprises to life.”
What We Can Do Now
So that raises a question: Is there anything that we in the manufacturing industry can do in the meantime — especially those of us who do have the skills the MIT group says are needed — to bring that kind of mentoring back?
I think there is. Senior level engineering talent definitely has a role to play in the fostering of younger entrepreneurs and enterprises. Here are three ideas:
- Reach out to your local college and university and ask about programs in your area geared toward fostering manufacturing entrepreneurship, and volunteer as a mentor
- Get involved with professional associations, such as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and their local chapter in your area and ask about entrepreneur mentorship programs — and, if none exists in your field or local area, start one
- Champion mentorship with your company, customers and suppliers — putting your brand behind a mentoring program sponsorship is a great way to promote your company and can give you access to leading edge thinking and talent
Rebuilding America’s manufacturing ecosystem is a noble long-term effort and deserves our commitment. But there’s plenty we can do in the short term as professionals and companies to accelerate that rebuild.