Maryland commission looks to correct a mistake: letting manufacturing base disappear

Posted by LDonia on 11/18/2013

Some places are practically synonymous with “manufacturing” --- Michigan and Ohio come to mind. But what some may not realize is that Maryland was once quite a hub of manufacturing. In fact, prior to World War II it was among the top 15 states for manufacturing.

But the last 75 or so years have not been kind to the Old Line State’s manufacturing sector.

Jamie Smith Hopkins chronicles this de-evolution in an article in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun.

Industry was once a linchpin of Maryland's economy. In 1912, The Baltimore Sun reported that Maryland had more manufacturing plants than all but 14 states. Manufacturing accounted for one-third of the jobs in Maryland just before World War II engulfed the country — and nearly half the state's jobs at the height of war production.

The losses in more recent decades are part technology-driven — machines enable one worker today to accomplish what it took several or many manufacturing workers to do years ago — and part geographic shift. Every state in the Mid-Atlantic, from New York to Virginia, saw cuts in the past quarter-century that outpaced the country as a whole.

Smith Hopkins specifically cites major closures over the last decade alone: the GM plant in Baltimore, the Solo Cup factory in Owings Mills, and the steel mill at Sparrows Point.

The writer's point, however, is not to re-hash the past but to instead highlight new efforts to correct what is now seen as a mistake: allowing that manufacturing base to disappear.

Writes Smith Hopkins:

As the state reliably added jobs over the decades in such fields as information technology, health care and government contracting, it was easy for state leaders to shrug off losses in manufacturing as inevitable, even acceptable. That appears to be changing: Last year the state convened a commission on manufacturing competitiveness, which is due to make recommendations next month.

But what about the aforementioned technology that displaced workers? Well, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Smith Hopkins spoke to Howard Wial, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who pointed out that often a company will be able to cut costs using new technology, and the savings will allow the company to grow and expand in other ways.

Wial also suggests the United States (and Maryland) should look to countries like Germany for best practices.

In Germany, he said, businesses, nonprofits and the government work together to strengthen the sector. There's a vibrant apprenticeship system and lenders that specialize in manufacturing.

The United States has a broken training system for technical skills and a financial system that ill serves manufacturers, especially smaller firms and startups, Wial said. An enterprising state could tackle both problems, he said, opening the door for more people to make things locally with emerging technologies such as 3-D printing, sensors and nanomaterials.

The Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) likes where this conversation is heading. Not just because it’s smart, but because many of the recommendations align squarely with the Blueprint for Manufacturing we released around the time of this year’s State of the Union.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on the Maryland commission’s recommendation and we’ll certainly share any news or outcomes with you.

Image of the (former) site of GM's Baltimore facility by Flickr user Vox Efx, used following Creative Commons guidelines.

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