If I say “China” to a person who is involved in manufacturing or design in the US, the reaction generally isn’t positive. It’s not a political reaction, it’s the reaction of someone afraid that his livelihood is going to be exported.
If I say “Mike Rowe”, well, first my wife swoons a little bit, but after I’m done rolling my eyes, some people recognize “oh, yeah, the guy that swims in pig $#!+”. Right, that guy. But if you pay more attention, you know that Mike Rowe is also deeply involved in supporting American workers, specifically “hard work and…the skilled trades”, according to his mikeroweWORKS foundation. He’s also involved in promoting S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Manufacturing)** jobs and education, and that’s an area that includes almost everyone reading this blog. So Mike Rowe is someone who has earned respect around engineering and manufacturing circles.
Next I say “Walmart”. Your reaction will likely be negative. People despise Walmart for various reasons. Around product design and manufacturing, we mostly recognize Walmart as the company that shamelessly destroyed American manufacturing, sent much more than just our jobs to China, and represents selling out for profits to the few and cheap crap to the many. In my previous job as a product design and development consultant, I saw first hand how ruthlessly Walmart dealt with inventors, marketers and distributors trying to get a new product on the market. For many inventors, it simply was not worth trying to sell at Walmart, because there was no profit left for anyone else. Further, Walmart is well known for squeezing their employees as hard as their vendors.
Many people associated with manufacturing in the US get downright angry talking about the boards of directors of American companies that have traded America’s future for a fat retirement pot for themselves and cheap crap for the rest of the country. If you’re motivated by environmental topics, US corporations by-passed all the regulation in the US to prevent massive industrial pollution by simply sending the pollution, along with our jobs and our money, to China. The results were shown to the world during the Beijing Olympics.
You may have seen an ad recently on TV, in fact during the Olympics. I didn’t really get it the first time it went by, because the punchline didn’t come until the end. But the second time, I recognized it as a change in direction, or at least a change in PR tactics. Have a look:
Just to boil it down for you a little, in case you haven’t heard all this yet, “Over the next 10 years, Walmart is investing $250 Billion in products that support American jobs.” And yes, the voice on that ad is Mike Rowe.
Mike Rowe, the poster boy for American jobs and manufacturing teams up with Walmart the anti-Christ of American jobs and manufacturing. It seems unthinkable until you remember that this is Walmart turning the corner a little bit. $250 billion over 10 years may not be that much for a company the size of Walmart, and what this campaign brings back to them in terms of good-will may over shadow that figure, but I think this can only be an improvement. Walmart is not claiming to turn toward American made products because it is the “right” thing to do, or even because it will help America (you, me, our friends, families, neighbors, customers, vendors) get back on our feet. I’m quite sure they don’t care about that stuff at all. They have worked for decades to stuff their pockets with the pennies they save by exporting your job, and destroying the environment in China, on their way to make every American into a shelf stocker, a greeter, or a consumer of cheap crap. No, they aren’t doing it for the right reasons, but regardless of their reasons, bringing back American made stuff can only help you, me, our friends, families, neighbors, customers, vendors – Americans.
Protectionism? Isolationism? “It’s one global economy”? Nope. You can make up all the dirty names you want, but at the end of the day, it’s about all those people listed above. I have an obligation to support those around me. I don’t wish any ill to the Chinese, but I have friends out of work. I’ve seen first hand how this works, and I know most of you have even more experience with it.
Mike Rowe may be in metaphorical rather than literal $#!+. Instead of wading through crap on Dirty Jobs, he’s taken on a different dirty job of dealing with the biggest purveyor of cheap crap in the world. At lot of people are calling Mike dirty names for making his deal with the devil. But I understand why he’s done it, and I support his choice.
I don’t begrudge companies the right to make a profit. I was in business for myself for several years, and understand that self-interest is not a bad thing. The desire for profit is what creates jobs in the first place. But self-interest in the absence of a certain respect for others is what has created this reputation that Walmart has as a loathsome corporate entity.
The cost of doing business in China has been rising for several years, especially when you consider the cost of donating your intellectual property to the Chinese public domain. Patent law, pollution and worker conditions are inviting the need for government regulation, and of course the ever increasing cost to ship goods from half the globe away. And this is before the complex discussion of managed currencies. It is these considerations that are swaying Walmart. Not altruism, or patriotism, or protectionism, or Mike’s idealistic belief in the work ethic. Even if Walmart starts selling more American goods, allowing all parties a reasonable profit, they will continue to be just slightly less loathsome.
Despite all this, I will support and encourage investment in American manufacturing from any source. Bringing back American manufacturing jobs is good for all of us. American business owners and workers pay taxes to stop incurring more US debt to China. Mike’s foundation is all about the benefits associated with real work, and getting this kind of boost certainly is worth the grief he’s catching.
***Oooooops. The M in STEM is “mathematics”, not “manufacturing”. Maybe it should have been “memory” ;o)