Populist politics threaten success of New North exporters

Posted on Mar 15, 2017 :: Editors Note
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

THERE ARE SO MANY GREAT THINGS TO WRITE about when it comes to manufacturing in the New North region that sometimes it’s easy to look past the politics of Washington. We need to pay close attention.

In one of its first acts after the inauguration, the Trump administration pulled the plug on U.S. participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership — a trade agreement that would have lowered barriers to trade with 11 Pacific Rim nations. It also signaled intentions to review and potentially reopen NAFTA and other trade agreements for renegotiation.

Many would argue Trump was making good on a campaign promise. But that kind of promise could be bad news for manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin.

In 2015, exporting businesses in the New North — many of them manufacturers — sent more than $4.4 billion worth of goods overseas. A lot of those products find their way to countries in Asia or Mexico. Wisconsin companies exported $22.4 billion in 2015. A total of 8,857 Wisconsin companies were exporters, supporting 118,958 jobs statewide — 93 percent of which were supported by the export of manufactured goods.

Clearly, we have a lot at stake if trade agreements are undone and barriers to exports are increased.

This month, we tapped some of our local experts and exporters and asked them to read the tea leaves a bit and provide some guidance about where this might wind up. You can read Jessica Thiel’s cover story beginning on page 8.

Now, trade agreements are not popular in all circles, and there is no arguing that while trade creates jobs on one side of the ledger, it also leads to job losses in other areas where companies can import lower-cost products. If you work in an industry threatened by those imports, there is no amount of reassurance that is going to make you feel better about keeping trade barriers low.

There is a balance there we have to find and vigilantly enforce. But the populist mantra of protectionism is just as dangerous to the jobs, profitability and economic success our regional manufacturers have enjoyed. We make things people the world over want. That’s at risk.

International intrigue aside, let’s get back to some of those good things that are happening in Northeast Wisconsin. A bit of a sleeper is the growing sustainable energy cluster around Manitowoc County. It’s been a slow buildup, but we seem to have hit a critical mass with the recent announcement that NextEra Energy and WPPI Energy are building a solar energy station on the grounds of Point Beach Nuclear Plant. Check out the story on page 17.

Meanwhile, our manufacturers continue to see the transition from the baby boomers to the next generation of leadership on the shop floor, and it has created some interesting challenges. Manufacturers were finding their best production workers didn’t always have the skills to easily transition from co-worker to team leader.

Our regional technical colleges have stepped up and created a leadership academy to help prepare the next generation of leadership. You can learn more about the academy on page 13.

As we look ahead to spring — and some warmer weather — our attention turns to our annual THINC! event and the Insight Innovation Awards. I hope you already have the afternoon of May 11 reserved on your calendar for an afternoon of innovation and networking. Additional details can be found on our THINC! webpage, insightonbusiness.com/events/thinc-2/.

I look forward to seeing you there!