the (new) american worker


No (Economic) Surprise: Green Manufacturing Jobs Flow Overseas
April 3, 2010, 2:52 pm
Filed under: jobs | Tags: , , , , ,

One of the persistent concerns of President Obama’s massive $367 billion federal investment in new energy projects – from coal to renewables – is that the American labor force is too expensive, and/or lacks the proper training, for the needs of producers. A piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek this week captured this idea quite simply:

No surprises: Arizona's First Solar will use federal incentives to hire 200 American workers - yet 71 percent of its manufacturing needs will still be met by foreign labor.

From BBW:

“Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar Inc. plans to do 71 percent of its manufacturing hiring in Malaysia after getting $16.3 million in federal funding to hire 200 people at an Ohio plant.”

Herein lies the ultimate problem – the economics of outsourcing the majority of manufacturing needs still makes sense to companies, incentives or not. Unfortunately, this simple reality doesn’t quiet any of the political outrage – especially as the Obama administration attempts to make good on its promise of 700,000 new jobs in stimulus renewables projects.

A green “industrial revolution” right here in America sounds great to some people – me included. This very blog was created to educate myself and others on the potentials for American labor in a new energy economy. Yet how the Obama administration is supposed to leapfrog over simple economics – foreign labor is, in my cases, simply cheaper – is still unclear to me. Perhaps it really is time that our nation’s expectations are shifted towards the potentials that lie in specialization and competitive advantage. CNBC recently ran a days-long debate on this topic, and the discussion turned often to where our best efforts should lie: in advanced education and innovation or in heavy industry and brawn. I believe Obama’s energy policies intended to do both – boosting Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh too. But is this really an economic reality? Perhaps not. “Green tech” manufacturing seems likelier to catch headwinds, i.e., manufacturing roles that place a heavy emphasis on innovation and other specialties, like low-carbon technology. But putting American steelworkers back to work building solar panels? Even with training and workforce investment, as U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis promised in this manufacturing summit on CNBC, this is a tall order. I’ll continue to entertain the idea (dream). But in the meantime, let’s not be surprised when we continue to lose certain types of jobs overseas – even better, let’s plan for it.

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