Recently, my parents returned to India following an extended visit with my family in Ada. In preparation for their return journey, we desired to purchase some gifts for them to take back to India.
My father being a very enthusiastic person, especially when it comes to American products, asked me to purchase only items that were Made in USA. As such, we went shopping and looked around for some appropriate items. This included dresses, kitchen utensils, bathroom items and various electronic devices. Surely we thought these would be the right items to purchase. After checking the origin of manufacture, we discovered many of these items were manufactured in China. The remaining items were made in other Asian countries.
To our disappointment for not finding anything appropriate that would pass my father’s test, we returned home from our unproductive quest.
My father was shocked that we could not find any worthy items with the “Made in the USA” label. He could not understand how America, without a strong foundation of manufacturing, could continue the status of a world super power.
At this point, our discussion changed course to America’s manufacturing history and its current state.
Until 50 or 60 years ago, America was the center of global manufacturing. The “Made in USA” label was a symbol of pride for Americans and people around the world. After China opened its market in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of President Nixon’s China diplomacy, most U.S. manufacturers started shifting their manufacturing processes to China.
Low labor costs and the favorable exchange rate of the Chinese Yuan to the U.S. dollar made it cheaper to manufacture products in China and then ship them back to the United States. Tough U.S. environmental regulations, the IT revolution and short-term profit objectives of U.S. corporations provided further impetus to shift manufacturing to China.
The strong U.S. dollar, as a global currency, kept interest rates low in America, therefore allowing it to become very cheap for the United States to import Chinese and other foreign goods. As a result, the United States became a society with huge imports and an insatiable appetite for consumption.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. manufacturing industry had become a global power as a result of strong work ethics and a highly productive and quality oriented mindset.
Manufacturing at that time was supported heavily by research and development efforts with funding from both private businesses and the government. The U.S. had generated the highest percentage of math, science and technology graduates of all time. Students within the U.S. ranked in top math and science categories on a global basis.
Manufacturing in Asian countries has lately become more expensive and cumbersome due to rising labor costs, poor quality, corruption and bureaucracy. As a result, high-tech manufacturing has started shifting back to the United States. The challenge going forward for this country, however, is to provide a highly educated and skilled workforce, enabling them to compete in today’s high-tech environment. Currently, the percentage of the U.S. students graduating with science, math or engineering degrees is much lower (less than 20 percent) than in past years (40 percent 50 years ago). In math and science, U.S. students rank much lower statistically globally.
It becomes more apparent every day that we must create curriculums within our primary and secondary schools with stronger focus on science and math.
Local technology centers, colleges and high schools must work together towards developing technology certificate programs for our students. Schools must employ world class teachers who are compensated with appropriate salaries.
Colleges and universities must also focus more on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Businesses and schools must work together to prepare America’s future workforce.
Unless a multi-faceted, ambitious approach is adopted to turn around education within the U.S.A., workers entering our businesses and manufacturing sectors will continue to fall short, risking outsourcing or relocating to other countries, and the “Made in USA” label will continue to be a thing of the past.
Back to my story… my father and I continued our discussion while sipping Indian chai in China cups and still debating what to purchase for their trip back to India. Finally, we settled for American candies (mostly Hershey’s chocolates), Braum’s Macaroons (coconut cookies — he liked them a lot), almonds from California and some facial cream for my niece, who by the way, had sent some nice dresses for my two daughters from the Gap in India.
Ada resident Ajay Kumar is general manager of Holcim Cement.