Niagara Gazette

August 20, 2013

CONFER: Obama should focus on energy and people

By Bob Confer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — President Obama will be visiting the area in the coming days and we’re told that his focus will be on improving the economy and strengthening the middle class. With our region’s long history of decline in once-mighty blue collar employment there is no better place to share such a message. You could say that Western New York is a trendsetter in economic malaise, for manufacturing is a sector that here, long before the recession that wracked the nation at large, saw production jobs and the associated wealth creation leave for more fruitful economic climes domestically and abroad.

Being the leader in losses is a title we don’t want and don’t deserve. But there’s no better place for our country to learn from, regarding both the bad ideas and policy that got us here and the good ideas and policy that can get us out. Let’s learn from the past, past, and future and build on our strengths to make the nation better.

So, just how do we improve manufacturing and, in turn, the middle class? The ideas are endless (that’s what this column has focused on hundreds of times and ways over the past eight years), but there are some big concepts and big ideas that I hope Obama – and other elected officials – emphasize in both talk and action. For brevity’s sake, here are what I would consider to be the top two keys to strengthening the producing class:

Capitalize on our resources

It has long been believed by the president and other Democrats that our future in energy is dependent not on oil, but on wind and solar.

That’s the wrong approach to take because neither resource is collected by technologies that could be deemed efficient. Were the United States to shift to such energy production, we’d be besieged by power bills that would rival New York’s – the second highest in the nation and the most significant reason for manufacturers having left the Empire State. It would be the death knell for anything that currently boats a “Made in the USA” label.

Recently, though, the president has broken from the far left of his party and alluded to the greatness of the vast natural gas reserves that other states have been reaping with hydrofracking (“fracking”). This resource can be extracted efficiently, cleanly and smartly with investments by the private sector being done under the watchful eye of the public sector.

The abundant gases can be used to make very clean electricity on the cheap, which will instantly and significantly lower one of the largest production costs (manufacturers could see power bills drop by 10% or more). Similarly, the gas can be used to make polyethylene, which can satisfy domestic demand for plastics, helping the market which has seen higher prices due to higher global demand. This could lead to plastic prices dropping by more than 20%.

Both of those factors will lead to greater middle class employment in the manufacturing sector because exports would increase and domestic consumers would buy more goods — all courtesy of significantly lower input and selling costs.

Capitalize on our people

Why do we as a society think that a college education is the gateway to success? For many it is. But for just as many, it’s the gateway to debt.

Success can be also be had for those who want it by utilizing vocational education, offered by many public schools and regional consortiums (like BOCES). Such programs have been grossly underutilized to the determent of the middle class: The National Association of Manufacturers reports that the skills gap is so significant that 600,000 open positions are wanting nationwide while 400,000 more exist in the trucking industry. It’s obvious that opportunity exists.

We need to make good on that opportunity and transform our national educational policy – if not society’s outlook on alleged “dirty jobs” — to account for teens being not just college-ready, but workforce-ready, too. Give people the skills that the marketplace needs. We need to emphasize and empower those blue-collar scholastic pursuits, as well as the associated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) curricula, skill sets in which other nations’ students are besting ours.

Education is critical to bettering our society, but we need to stray away from standardized testing, Common Core, and the like and refocus on real world applications. Simply put, we need a middle class equally adept with their hands and their minds.

Energy and people. Those are two things that drive every manufacturer. They are two things that can drive our economy, too.

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American magazine at TheNewAmerican.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer