Floor Speech: Urging Congress to support revival of American manufacturing, rebuild middle class

As Delivered on February 6, 2014

I come to the floor once again to talk about manufacturing jobs and their importance for rebuilding the American middle class, their importance for our economy, and their importance for our future.

Last week President Obama delivered his State of the Union Address before a joint session of this Congress, and he talked about what we can and should do together to invest in America's workers, to spur job creation, and to expand economic opportunity. He said:

What I believe unites the people of this nation, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all--the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can and should get ahead. Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that trust.

I couldn't agree more. At a basic level, one thing we need to do is to put up a floor under the struggling workers in America who are continuing to seek work and to come together to extend emergency unemployment insurance for these long-term job seekers.

While jobs remain, sadly, more scarce than they should be in our economy and as we continue in recovery, we can't let Americans fall through the cracks as they continue to seek work.

But since the extended unemployment insurance benefits expired last December, 1.7 million Americans, including more than 4,000 Delawareans, have lost the unemployment insurance that is critical to their families, to keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads.

Emergency unemployment insurance, which this body once again today failed to extend, is a critical lifeline to Americans out of work through no fault of their own and who are doing everything they can to get back to work. While they are searching for jobs, we should make sure they can put food on their tables and keep their families sound.

One Delawarean I have heard from who relies on this lifeline is Raymond from Newark. Raymond was laid off last April from his job at the EVRAZ steel mill in Claymont. He is not sitting at home based on these unemployment benefits. He is not showing dependency, as some have suggested here. He has averaged more than 30 job applications each and every week. He has four children depending on him--one in college with tuition payments.

He wrote to me saying: ``My job search is more than finding a job; it is searching to make an honest living.''

Raymond, to you, and to the more than the 1 million Americans who rely on decent work to give meaning to their lives, to give support to their families, and to give purpose and opportunity to their children and their future, we can and should do more--not only by extending the unemployment insurance, not only by increasing the minimum wage, but by building the middle class of this country to work together.

Folks such as Raymond have worked hard and paid their taxes. They have earned the opportunity, when they really need it, to get unemployment insurance. That is why they paid into it for so many years. But we need to do more beyond just extending unemployment insurance.

We need to invest in Raymond's future. We need to invest in the skills that will help Americans like him transition from his job in a steel mill to a plant that is open and has a job that needs to be filled.

Throughout our history broad-based job growth and job creation have ensured economic opportunity that was there for millions of millions of Americans across several generations. Anyone who was able and willing to work in this country for a long time was able to find a decent job and a ladder into the middle class. By investing in our nation's workforce, our people, through public education, through the GI bill, and through access to higher education, we have been a country where anyone who was willing to work could make it if they combined their work ethic and talents with the skills they needed.

During World War II, in the postwar boom, manufacturing was an economic backbone. Our country was the pathway to the middle class that made all of this possible. 

American manufacturing was the sturdy manifestation of that central American idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can provide for your family today so your children can get access to higher education, a brighter future, and you can have a secure retirement tomorrow. That is the essence of the American middle class.

The basic opportunity that manufacturing provided--those strong and stable rungs by which Americans could pull themselves up the ladder of opportunity--was the heart of America's economic engine, it was the glue that held communities together, but over the past few decades it has changed dramatically. As the world has changed, as billions of competitors have entered global markets, from China to India to Russia, so has the nature of manufacturing , as technology has advanced and the playing field on which we compete globally has changed fundamentally. The critical impact of low wages abroad and of trade deals that were not effectively enforced has been well documented. But too often people draw the wrong conclusion about the future of manufacturing based on its recent past. I have heard many arguing that manufacturing is no longer an industry, a sector where America can compete because this global playing field is tilted and there will always be workers in some country who will work for less, and so we are relegated to inevitably lose what is left of our manufacturing in a race to the bottom. The suggestion has been made in some sectors that we should thrive with service and high-skilled research and development and financial services but not manufacturing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In my view, only if we continue to be a country where we invent things, grow things, and make things will we continue to be a leading economy where there is real opportunity for all Americans. Why? Because manufacturing jobs are high-quality jobs both for those who work in them, who get higher wages and higher benefits, but also for the local economy, where manufacturing jobs provide more of a compounding benefit than any other sector.

Some suggest we just can't compete because our labor standards, our environmental protections, and our wages are too high. But look to Germany and Europe, and you can see this isn't true. They have higher labor standards and higher environmental protections than we do, and yet more than double the percentage of their economy, the percentage of their GDP is manufacturing because their government, their education sector, and their private sector work in close harmony to do what we need to do.

Since manufacturers invest the most in private sector R&D, where there is manufacturing, there is also a wealth of high-skilled research work. That is one of the other benefits of manufacturing. Tech development works the best when research centers are close to where products are made. Over the long term it is hard to have one without the other. So as our manufacturing base has moved offshore, we have been at risk of losing our research base. But just in the last few years there has been a dynamic that is encouraging of jobs coming back to this country. As our productivity continues to grow, as our energy costs go down, and as that wage gap closes, we have actually been regaining ground in manufacturing.

I am convinced that if we want to rebuild an economy that is dynamic and that grows, one that provides opportunities to the middle class, manufacturing must be at the center--in fact, must be the foundation.

What is true is that because the global economy has shifted so dramatically, we need to shift our strategy and our approach. The manufacturing that America excels at today is more advanced and requires higher skilled workers than ever before. Rather than repeating the same tasks over and over, workers today in manufacturing have to be able to carry out complex and varying tasks; to be able to see what is not going right and fix it as a collaborative team; to understand the manufacturing process and to innovate continuously. They have to have critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The sorts of things workers weren't expected to do 30 years ago are a minimum requirement today. They need to understand manufacturing, and they need to be able to program and to improve the caliber and productivity of the machines that do most of the repetitive simple labor of manufacturing today. 

We can train Americans for these jobs , but our schools and our institutions of higher learning, our community colleges and universities have to be tightly integrated into a skill-training system that is demand-driven rather than giving people training and praying that somehow they will find their way to an appropriate employer.

That is why I was so encouraged when President Obama placed such an emphasis on workplace skills training and manufacturing in his State of the Union speech. By modernizing our education system and building real and enduring partnerships between schools and businesses, we can ensure our workers have the skills that employers actually need today and tomorrow; so when a guy like Raymond from a steel mill in Claymont is laid off, he can have the opportunity to improve his skills, to retool his abilities, and to move right into an open and available manufacturing job. A recent study showed there were more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs --high-skilled, high-wage, high-benefit jobs --in America today unfilled because of this skills gap.

While I understand and even appreciate President Obama's commitment to making some progress in the coming year through Executive orders, he should not give up on working with Congress. It is just February. It is too early in this year for us to give up on the possibility of passing bipartisan legislation together.

I think more than ever, because of the message it sends domestically and internationally, we have to find a way to work together to make progress on the critical issue of manufacturing skills and to do what we can together to grow our economy and rebuild our middle class. That is why I have been working so hard with my colleagues on the Manufacturing Jobs for America campaign here in the Senate. Manufacturing Jobs for America is a campaign to build support for good manufacturing legislation on which Democrats and Republicans can agree. So far we have had 26 Democratic Senators introduce 32 bills. Almost half of them have Republican cosponsors already, and we are seeking more each and every week.

Our bills focus on four areas that, if we were to enact them, could have a real and substantial impact on manufacturing and opportunity in our country: strengthening America's modern workforce skills, as I have spoken to; fighting for a more level global playing field and opening export markets to America's manufacturers of all sizes. Medium and small businesses have been growing their exports, but we could grow so much more, and that would sustain the growth in manufacturing; third, making it easier for manufacturers to access capital and invest in the R&D I spoke to a moment ago; and fourth, ensuring a coordinated government-wide effort in support of a national manufacturing strategy. All of our competitors have them. We alone don't, and we need a national manufacturing strategy to make sure that skills, access to exports, and access to capital all happen.

Madam President, adapting our economy to the realities of a new era is a challenge we have struggled with for more than a generation. Yet figuring out how to realize an economy where growth is both strong and more equitable--one that is dynamic and creative and globally competitive and also has a broad middle class, provides security for working families, and leaves no one behind; an economy that invests in the dreams and aspirations of our children--building that economy is the central challenge we face. Manufacturing can and should be the foundation of that economy.

If we want America to be as strong in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, we need American manufacturing. Let's work together and get this done.

I thank my colleagues from both sides of the aisle for their partnership, their interest, and their work. I so much look forward to working together in the weeks ahead to prove to the American people that we can make bipartisan progress on manufacturing.

Press Contact

Ian Koski at 202-224-5042