|By G. Michael Dobbs|
My wife has developed quite a scrapbooking habit and what comes along with the hobby is a large inventory of photos, paper, decals, rubber stamps and fascinating little objects. Naturally one has to have a place for all of these items and I have been amazed at the depth of the storage end of this business. There are a variety of boxes, totes and other ways to cart around your stuff.
That's why a vendor in the Massachusetts State Building at the Big E caught my eye. The Bay State-based company sells a durable canvas bag that has a lot of pockets and storage areas and even unzips to a flat shape. It was pretty impressive.
I asked the sales rep if the bags were made in Massachusetts and he replied they weren't. The company had tried to find a local company to make the bags, but the price quoted would make the product too expensive for the marketplace.
One doesn't expect to think about trade and employment issues while scoping out corn dogs and gadgets at New England's great state fair, but the brief conversation certainly made me think.
How can American workers who deserve a fair wage for their efforts compete against a nation such as China where wages are a fraction of those here? How do we develop entry-level positions for people that allow them to support themselves?
This manufacturer had a choice: either employ Americans and produce a much more expensive item that might not sell or outsource to China and have a product that could sell.
Many companies across the country face that question.
Consider what this area used to be like in 1968. Think about the number of factories producing items used in consumer goods. Remember Westinghouse? Uniroyal? National Blank Book? People graduating from high school and perhaps unsure of a career path could find employment in these businesses. Many of these jobs had chances for promotion and training. People who worked in these jobs bought homes and had families.
Today we seem trapped. Companies that produce consumer goods have to be more cost conscious than ever in order to compete. That might include outsourcing. By doing that, though, we weaken the consumer base by eliminating jobs. That makes people even more dependent on cheaply produced goods.
The opportunities for young people are far more competitive and the blue-collar factory option has decreased dramatically.
From what I've read the international trade agreements that bind this country to relationships that have hurt our job base are so mired in politics, so complicated by other factors we don't want to anger a nation such as China that is holding billions of dollars in loans that as a consumer I don't know what can be done on that level.
I suspect that greater and more immediate relief can be found on the local, regional and state level. Identification of areas that are require people such as the precision machining industry here in the region should be addressed with aggressive recruiting and apprentice programs.
Agriculture is making resurgence locally. It should be encouraged. Food and job security go hand in hand.
Job retention should be a priority. What can state and local officials do to prevent jobs from leaving the region and state that they aren't doing already? Are there state regulations if changed that would improve the climate for business here? Should state and local governments enact a "Buy American, Buy from Massachusetts" program?
Marketing emphasis should be placed on locally produced goods. There are already many food items marketed by some retailers in this fashion, but can more be done?
What do you think?
This column represents the opinions of its author. Send your comments online to email@example.com to 280 N. Main St.,East Longmeadow, Mass. 01028.
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