News Column

How Can US Bring Jobs Home?

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When Democratic National Convention delegates head to Time Warner Cable Arena, they'll file past tall sculptures outside the building that resemble spindles and bobbins -- a nod to North Carolina's textile past.

It's an image that also highlights one of the hottest issues in the presidential election: What happened to American manufacturing, and how can the country bring jobs back?

From stumping at North Carolina plants to highlighting Charlotte-area companies in their speeches, both President Barack Obama and GOP nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney have staked claim to being the candidate to get more Americans working.

That talk isn't likely to subside when the Democratic National Convention comes to Charlotte Sept. 4-6, and as campaign ad wars intensify in battleground states including North Carolina.

Bringing manufacturing jobs back home is a theme that resonates in the Carolinas: Since 1990, North Carolina lost more than 395,000 manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. South Carolina has lost more than 72,000 manufacturing jobs since 2002, the earliest year available.

The picture is not all bleak: High-tech manufacturing is on the rise. And Charlotte is pinning high hopes on the energy sector as the city looks to diversify its economy.

But some say challenges remain that could stifle manufacturing's growth, including stiff federal regulations, trade disparities that make China's exports cheap, and trouble finding enough skilled workers.

And the unemployment rate in the Carolinas and throughout the country remains stubbornly high -- 9.6 percent in both Carolinas in July, compared to 8.3 percent for the U.S. Nationally, unemployment in the manufacturing sector was 9 percent in 2011, compared to 6.7 percent in 2002.

Still, in North Carolina, the number of manufacturing jobs exceeds those in construction, finance, and accommodation and food services, according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security. And in 2011, N.C. manufacturing jobs rose by about 3,000 over 2010, to nearly 435,000.

Both presidential candidates have filled their television ads with manufacturing imagery: hard-hat workers, auto plant assembly lines, bustling vs. dormant factories.

Among the steps in Romney's plan: curtailing unfair trade practices of China and others, not favoring union workers for government projects, and capping federal spending.

Obama's plan includes creating high-tech jobs and boosting U.S. exports. And he's credited his bailout of the auto industry as saving jobs and manufacturing in the Midwest.

Cochrane favors Romney

Lincolnton furniture maker Bruce Cochrane has been lauded by Obama for being part of a "reshoring" trend to return manufacturing jobs to the U.S.

But Cochrane favors Romney.

Cochrane worked as a consultant in China and Vietnam after his family sold its furniture business in 1996. Then he invested $5 million to bring jobs back to North Carolina. Lincolnton Furniture began production in 2011.

Cochrane and other small business owners were invited this year to the White House to discuss how to create jobs in the U.S. The trip was worth it for face-time with the president to raise awareness, Cochrane said. Still, he believes Romney is the stronger candidate on manufacturing.

"We certainly haven't seen any great programs that have been initiated and fulfilled, from a state level or from a federal level," Cochrane said. "I believe Romney is an astute business man. He's run companies. ... He has experience."

Romney has also highlighted North Carolina businesses. He and running mate Paul Ryan made a campaign stop at a High Point furniture maker earlier this month.

Romney also has supporters at Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, where he stopped in May to give a speech from the factory floor.

Before the speech, Romney met with a dozen employees, including line workers, supervisors, secretaries and managers, according to CEO Roddey Dowd Jr. One participant told Romney about U.S. foundry closures over the last decade because of competition with China.

"He said, 'I'm going to get tough on China. Enough's enough.' To us, that sounds like maybe a fair chance," Dowd said. "The guy gets China, and I think he's going to do something about it."

Obama represents "the most anti-business administration that I've ever seen," Dowd said.

At the Democratic National Convention, delegates will ratify a party platform that includes manufacturing themes, including boosting exports, ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and "insourcing," or bringing American jobs back home.

"Everyone agrees that jobs and the economy is the number one issue for all the campaigns, down the ballot," said state Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, an N.C. delegate and member of the party's platform committee. "The president's approach is building the economy from the middle (class) out, rather than the top down, which is the Romney-Ryan strategy."

The platform includes a nod to creating clean energy jobs, which Obama touted in March during a speech at a Daimler Trucks manufacturing plant in Gaston County. In 2010, Obama visited Celgard, a high-tech Charlotte firm that makes a key component for batteries used in hybrid vehicles.

He celebrated the company for its green energy technology and for adding jobs due in part to his $787 billion federal stimulus program, from which Celgard received a $49 million grant.

Other countries are showing interest in this technology: Recently, a Chinese company invested heavily in a Michigan firm that makes batteries for electric vehicles, according to The Wall Street Journal.

For the U.S. to remain ahead in the green technology race, government will have to invest, according to Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"The rapid development of clean technology should not be a partisan issue," Smith said. "Our government plays a critical role in supporting research, promoting development and providing incentives ... to ensure the United States remains a clean tech leader through the 21st century."

Obama offers outreach

A. Blanton Godfrey, dean of the College of Textiles at N.C. State University, said he's still waiting to hear "very specific proposals on both sides" to keep his part of the manufacturing industry ahead of other countries through education, research and innovation.

"Obama has said a lot more about it," Godfrey said, "and he's created advisers in manufacturing and advanced manufacturing."

The Obama administration's outreach to the Carolinas textile community included inviting companies to a roundtable discussion in January in Gastonia with trade official Francisco Sanchez.

Invitees included National Spinning, a 91-year-old company with six North Carolina locations, including Lincolnton. Bob Miller, executive vice president, said the company isn't taking sides in the presidential election.

But he said government leadership in general hasn't identified with the challenges of textile companies like National Spinning, which has moved toward more specialized products to stay competitive.

To make fabrics that go into mattresses, ground coverings, even wet wipes, the company imports raw materials and fibers since its U.S. suppliers went out of business, Miller said.

Duties on these imports run high, but the government hasn't taken steps to lift these taxes, Miller said.

"Generally speaking, we're trying to create jobs in eastern North Carolina, and now in the Piedmont as well," Miller said. "Government hasn't done much to help us. We try to help ourselves."

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