Heard the one about the Congressman and the machine shop?

Nov. 9, 2006
Ever wonder what a Congressman does in a manufacturing plant?

— Leland Teschler, Editor

I got the answer to that question firsthand, thanks to an organization called the U.S. Business and Industry Council. USBIC thinks low-wage countries have put U.S. manufacturers in dire straits, so much so that it advocates an emergency strategy toward foreign trade.

USBIC asked a Congressman to see firsthand how trade policies have affected manufacturers and invited me to tag along. So when we showed up at SC Manufacturing Inc. in Akron, I was ready for the owner, S. Lee Combs, to give the honorable Representative from Ohio an earful about what Uncle Sam could do about foreign competitors.

I'm not sure Combs told the Congressman what USBIC expected. He basically said it's too late to do much about competition from places like China. Some 30% of the job shops like SC have gone belly up in the last three years, Combs says. The survivors now do a lot of specialty work that can't get done overseas.

And, in fact, business for SC is good, the best it's been in quite some time, Combs says. Thanks to a boom in oil services and drilling, job shops anywhere near Texas are swamped. The excess work is going to firms like Combs' located as far away as Ohio. To meet demand, survivors like SC have been buying up at auction the equipment from road-kill companies laid low by offshoring.

But if USBIC thought SC would be a poster child for unfair foreign competition, they were disappointed. "The government doesn't help us like the Chinese government helps companies there," said Combs, folding his arms. "Here we have the freedom to fail and the freedom to succeed."

Combs does have some ideas about how Uncle Sam can boost the manufacturing industry. For one thing, help train machinists. Right now he has a tough time finding any. "I can train somebody to be a machine operator in a few weeks. But it takes about four years to train a machinist," he says.

For another, put banks in a position where they can extend financing to small manufacturing businesses that want to expand. Combs has firsthand experience on this point. To buy two CNC machining centers recently, he had to put up his own house as collateral.

Did any of this sink in with the Congressman? Search me. He seemed likeable but clueless. On a tour of Combs' production floor, we stopped at one machine that was finishing huge flywheels for a customer that made flywheel-based back-up power supplies. The Congressman didn't know what a flywheel was. I tried to explain it to him, but I was unsuccessful.

We had better luck at a machine that finished castings for a Malaysian molder of rubber gloves and condoms. At least I didn't have to explain what a condom was.

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