The Manufacturing Vote: Our 2016 Guide To The Presidential Race

MakeTime / Oct. 20, 2016

The U.S. manufacturing vote is like a lot things in this country: increasingly diverse and depressingly divided. While it’s long been true that an individual’s decision in the voting booth is a deeply personal one that involves a complex array of considerations that range from deeply held religious beliefs to complicated philosophies on the proper role of government in the lives of the citizenry, more pragmatic concerns hold sway, too. In particular? The perceived effects each presidential candidate might have on the ol’ bank account.

Which side are you on?

If you work in manufacturing, these pragmatic concerns get pretty specific. Take where a candidate claims to stand on the issue of “free trade” for example. To CNC machinists and other blue collar workers along the manufacturing supply chain, any talk of NAFTA or the upsides and downsides of the TPP center on each agreement’s effects on the American worker. If how you earn a paycheck depends on your ability to leverage your labor in exchange for a fair wage, that concern makes a lot of sense. Voters who literally “work” for a living, then, tend to favor candidates who talk about protecting American jobs.

For manufacturers and the white collar workers eyeing their company’s bottom line, free trade discussions elicit very different concerns. This also makes sense. After all, these voters earn a paycheck leveraging capital rather than labor, and global trade agreements almost always open up cheaper labor and materials markets, which translate into a perceived lower cost for goods. For these individuals, then, a candidate whose stance on free trade is positive will be the more attractive choice, so long as his or her approach to policy includes a plan to combat other countries’ unfairly devalued currencies.

The manufacturing vote, then, is complicated, and free trade is just the beginning. Whether the discussion centers about increasing levels of automation or the recent changes in U.S. law regarding overtime pay, the world of U.S manufacturing is a wildly disparate place. That U.S. manufacturing is vital to the success of everyone working in or invested in the industry (as well as the U.S. economy’s health as a whole) is something everyone can agree on. Which presidential candidate will go about promoting and protecting U.S. manufacturing best? Well, that depends on what you leverage to draw a wage.

This year, of course, has some added complexity. A choice between two of the least popular candidates in recent memory, this year’s presidential race has made casting a vote about everything from gender politics and assault to what Wikileaks is going to release next that a Russians hacker just handed over.

Manufacturing Vote | Clinton | Trump

It’s a mess. Before you give up and stay home on Election Day altogether, however, take comfort in the fact that we’ve been here before. Here’s a look at some terrible presidential elections from our country’s past, as well as a closer examination of what you should consider on November 8th to help ensure your manufacturing job — and your manufacturing company — stay safe and strong in coming years.

Ghosts of elections past

Presidential elections have rarely brought out the best in our country’s electorate — or its candidates. When the election of 1800 ended up in an electoral college tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the House of Representatives chose Jefferson thanks to the skilled political maneuvering of Alexander Hamilton, whose hatred of Burr was already legendary. The animosity between Burr and Hamilton would continue to escalate, culminating in the deadly duel that cost Hamilton his life three years later.

The elections of 1824 and 1828 weren’t much better. Another contest in which no candidate for president emerged with a majority of the electoral college vote, the election was again decided in the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House Henry Clay had tremendous influence, and he threw his support behind John Quincy Adams, leaving Andrew Jackson without even the vice presidency as a consolation prize. When Adams then named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson vowed to topple Adams in four years’ time over his and Clay’s “corrupt bargain.” The 1828 campaign was even uglier than the one that preceded it. Jackson accused Adams of pimping out American women to Russian czars, and the press maligned Jackson’s wife so relentlessly in the months leading up to Election Day that she took to her bed and died soon after.

In 1860, the election of anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln resulted in a bitter and bloody civil war. Theodore Roosevelt was actually shot while campaigning for the White House in 1912 — he famously finished his speech before seeking medical care — and the election of 2000 was so close it resulted in recounts and lawsuits that went on for more than a month. The Florida Supreme Court finally put a stop to the vote counting, and George W. Bush, who just happened to be the Florida governor’s brother, was declared the winner.

In other words: You think we’d be used to it by now.

Choosing our nation’s president has almost always been unpleasant. While the unpleasantness of 2016 will certainly be one for the record books, our democracy has long shown a resiliency that outlasts our differences. Presidential power in the U.S. may be sought with a no-holds-barred approach, but the presidency itself always changes hands without too much fuss. As Election Day approaches and the vitriol gets worse, that good news should not be taken for granted.

For those of us who work in manufacturing and are concerned about the future of our industry, however, there’s more than self- and other-slung mud to wade through. While it’s never prudent to consider a candidate’s views or practice on manufacturing in a vacuum, given the mayhem of this election cycle, it’s probably the most helpful place to start. So, here it is: A brief look at what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have to say about our nation’s most important industry.

The trouble spots

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way. Neither Mr. Trump nor Secretary Clinton talk much about the pressing need to modernize manufacturing throughout the U.S. As the Industrial Internet of Things fast approaches, this blind spot must be addressed thoroughly for our workers and our companies to compete meaningfully in an increasingly high-tech global market.

Both candidates are also distressingly silent on the necessity of providing early STEM education — especially in public schools, and the best solution either has offered to address our fast-approaching skills gap comes from Clinton. She’s said she will support granting green card status to foreign students who graduate U.S. institutions with advanced STEM degrees. While companies in dire need of workers with skills in advanced manufacturing and the executives in Silicon Valley may applaud that idea, American workers and students are understandably less enthusiastic. If Trump knows about the coming skills gap, he’s keeping it to himself.

Manufacturing Vote Students

What else? Neither candidate seems interested in exploring how or why American manufacturing keeps getting more productive with fewer workers. Instead, they’ve each chosen to fall back on populist rhetoric that may play well at rallies — The jobs went overseas! It’s time to bring them back! — but their real-world policy options lack the nuance and thoughtfulness we need. Protecting the American manufacturing worker, while simultaneously ensuring that the companies putting work on her CNC lathe or industrial sewing machine don’t go out of business, is a lot more complicated than punishing companies who outsource jobs.

The nature of work is changing, and it’s changing fast. Automation, robots, cobots, IIoT, additive manufacturing and other advances are allowing every industry to do vastly more with fewer traditional workers. U.S. manufacturing is especially ripe for this transformation. What’s needed is a comprehensive way to assist displaced workers with skills training and education so when their job is disrupted they’re able to land on their feet. Unfortunately, neither major party candidate has shown much awareness — let alone acumen — about traversing this shift.

Talk Walking

In many ways, this year’s race seems to be a case of comparing apples to oranges. In one corner, we have Hillary Clinton, an Ivy-League educated lawyer who has held elected office and been in public service almost her entire career. In the other corner, we have Donald Trump, a businessman and reality TV star who has sold everything from real estate to vodka to steaks.

A lot of the time, the two candidates sound surprisingly similar when they talk about U.S. manufacturing. They both say the TPP in its current form is bad. They both claim our manufacturing sector is on the ropes, and they have what it takes to put it back on the offensive. They both claim they can bring back the millions of manufacturing jobs lost since in the past four decades. What they say and what they do, however, tells a story of sharper contrasts.

First, it’s true that Secretary Clinton has long been a proponent of free trade, and until it turned out to be such a hot button issue this campaign, she was in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as it currently stands. Now, she says it needs to be reconfigured. Which path she would actually choose if elected to the presidency is unknown, but given her past, it seems more likely than not that free trade would be a part of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Donald Trump voices strong opposition to our country’s current trade agreements and viciously criticizes other U.S. companies for outsourcing work. The irony of his position is that he has long benefitted from these trade agreements and from outsourcing personally, and he continues to do so. In fact, most of the products he sells in the U.S. are manufactured overseas by workers in at least 12 different countries. The idea that a Trump presidency would result in laws, taxes or tariffs that would actually penalize such behavior is hard to imagine given that he practices it himself.

Aw, shucks. Diversity?

It’s about to get sticky.

Both the Manufacturing Institute and NAM are in agreement that for U.S. manufacturing to compete in coming years and decades, one thing it must do is attract, train and embrace a more diverse workforce. Greater diversity — what someone is born with (gender and ethnicity) and what he or she acquires from life’s experiences — is proven to engender in the companies that enjoy it a more innovative atmosphere. From capturing new markets to increasing market share, there are real bottom line reasons to make sure your workforce isn’t homogenous.

People of color and immigrants, then, should be sought out, welcomed and retained by those manufacturing companies that want to maintain competitiveness, but attracting more women is particularly vital. For that to happen, there must be a more concentrated effort to draw women to manufacturing, to show them it’s a great industry in which to work. For thatto happen, manufacturing must become a great industry for women workers.

Hot-mic comments, accusers and history aside, it’s unlikely Mr. Trump will draft or support much policy that encourages our industry to address the concerns that currently keep women out of it. He hasn’t been supportive of working mothers in the past, and while he now has a plan in place for six weeks of paid maternity leave, the fact that it would lean on unemployment insurance to cover the cost would likely discourage employers from hiring women of childbearing age in the first place.

Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, has long been a supporter of women in the workplace and is much more likely to support and draft policy that will enable our industry to attract and retain women. Her plan includes 12 weeks of paid parental — not maternal — leave, which means every potential hire, male or female, could make use of it. Besides the millions of American men who would love to take paid time off when welcoming a new baby, the fact that the leave would be gender-neutral effectively removes one of the struggles women face when working in male dominated industries.

There you have it. While much more could be said about the candidates and the effects they’re likely to have on our industry, their stances on trade, technology and working women are significant enough. Whether you vote your conscience or you vote your pocketbook (and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive) come November 8th, all we ask is that you vote.

Want to know more about our take on the state of U.S. manufacturing? Download our white paper here.