Senator Chris Coons: Manufacturing can be transformed in Delaware

Almost every day, I ride Amtrak between Wilmington and Washington, D.C., and each day out the window, I see the site of the old Chrysler plant in Newark. Each time I see it, I think about being there 15 years ago when I first ran for public office, introducing myself to thousands of hard-working employees. Some of those men and women had just graduated from high school and others had been there for decades, but they all shared one thing in common: they had good-paying, steady manufacturing jobs.

Chrysler, GM and other manufacturers used to be at the center of our state’s economy, each employing hundreds and even thousands of Delawareans. This weekend, though, as we mark National Manufacturing Day, we’re reminded that many of those local manufacturing jobs have left for good, that many of our families are still feeling the impact of those job losses, and that we have to work together to make possible a new era of manufacturing in Delaware.

Though some of or our largest, most prominent manufacturers have left Delaware and the United States, manufacturing is still an important part of our state’s economy, and we’re not starting over from scratch. Manufacturing still supports more than 25,000 jobs in Delaware, and in my five years as a senator, I’ve had the opportunity to visit dozens of manufacturers up and down the state that are creating new, high-paying jobs that look very different from the manufacturing jobs of decades past.

The changing face of manufacturing is a good thing, but it’s also a challenge, because too often, perceptions about manufacturing remain stuck in the past. Many parents and guidance counselors are reluctant to encourage strong students to pursue manufacturing careers they envision on dirty factory floors, but their worries don’t match up with reality. Today’s manufacturing jobs require higher-level skills than ever before, from hard math and engineering skills to the ability to think critically and work as part of a team. Many of them require two-year college degrees, and many require more.

But it’s not only public perception that hasn’t kept up with manufacturing’s transformation. Job training programs have also lagged behind in preparing people with the skills they need to succeed in the advanced manufacturing jobs of today. As a result, manufacturers who are trying to fill new jobs haven’t always been able to find people with the right skills to fill them. This skills gap has slowed down growing companies and the economy, but it’s also made it harder for young people to get good jobs that are available right here in Delaware.

The good news is there are already efforts at the state and local levels in Delaware to encourage and train young people for successful careers in manufacturing. One effort is “Pathways to Prosperity,” a program spearheaded by Gov. Jack Markell that connects Delaware Tech, local high schools, and manufacturing companies to help schools train students with the skills and knowledge companies are looking for in new employees. This program has already helped manufacturers close the local skills gap and give young people a clear pathway to exciting, promising careers that they might not otherwise have considered.

In the Senate, I started the Manufacturing Jobs for America initiative, and I’ve been working on legislation to help states partner with the federal government to build on these efforts here in Delaware and across the country. We’re working to send the message to young people that manufacturing is a viable career and help give them the right skills to excel in those jobs.

Earlier this year, I introduced the Manufacturing Skills Act with Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte to help cities and states modernize their job training programs and equip job seekers with the skills they need for today’s manufacturing jobs.

I also worked with my Republican and Democratic colleagues to introduce the Manufacturing Universities Actwhich would designate 25 “Manufacturing Universities” across the country and invest up to $5 million per year into each school’s engineering program over four years.

On Friday, I hosted U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to show off some of what we’re doing to support manufacturing in the First State. We visited two of Delaware’s fastest-growing manufacturers, Accudyne and M. Davis, and talked about how we can work together in Delaware at the local, state and federal levels to create and maintain strong, 21st century manufacturing jobs. Secretary Pritzker saw the same things I continue to see in Delaware: a strong environment for growing businesses and a skilled workforce for companies across a wide range of industries.

Manufacturing in Delaware has certainly changed from what it once was, but it’s just as important to our 21st century economy and the middle class as it was in the last century. Today’s manufacturing jobs pay, on average, more in wages and benefits than any other industry, they contribute more to local economies, and they are critical to our nation’s capacity to innovate and grow.

For the thousands of Delawareans who grew up with friends and family members who went to work every day at GM and Chrysler, it’s easy to be skeptical about manufacturing in our state, but there is real reason for hope.

By investing in quality job training programs, working directly with Delaware businesses, and educating our students with the skills they need in a modern economy, we can change the perception of manufacturing in our state and replace the lost jobs of the 20th century with good-paying, 21st century jobs right here at home.

-U.S. Senator Chris Coons

 

This Op-Ed was featured on DelawareOnline