Thought Leaders of the Emerging Regenerative Economy

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 After having been written off as a declining, noncompetitive sector, manufacturing is now rising on the radar screens of policymakers, social justice advocates, and a new breed of environmentalists who see it as both a catalyst for economic revival in America and as offering the solution to many of our ecological and societal ills.     As part of our research for our Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy study of the Manufacturing Renaissance, we stopped by the offices of Locker Associates in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Zuccotti Park.  Mike Locker is a long-time advisor to manufacturing companies and labor on corporate restructuring and buyouts, and has conducted hundreds of feasibility studies for troubled companies and industries over the years.

A graduate of the illustrious Brooklyn Technical High School, which, he says, gave him a real understanding of “manufacturing techniques…of how things are made,” Mike went on to study sociology at a Quaker College in Ohio, and early on took a deep interest in bringing labor and management together around shared business goals.

Mike served 15 years as Chair of the Board of the Center for Labor and Community Research, and has been closely involved with its founder, Dan Swinney, in the of creation of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (out of which the National Manufacturing Renaissance Campaign has recently been born).

We covered a lot of ground with Mike during our two-hour conversation on a rainy New York afternoon a few days before the city shut down for the holidays. Mike noted how much he has learned through his engagement with Swinney and the CLCR as they have worked to understand the central role of coalition-building in transformative change. “You can’t achieve social justice or economic objectives unless you can put together a coalition that is powerful enough to speak to those objectives in a united way,” he explains. ““We have struggled for years at the CLCR to find a way to achieve sufficient unity in a coalition to drive home a real agenda without requiring unanimity.”

CLCR seems to have achieved that unity of purpose with the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council project, an unlikely collaboration among 65 local manufacturing companies, labor, government, the inner city Chicago community of Austin, and the Chicago public school system, all working together to create a highly skilled workforce to revive the local manufacturing sector. Assembling the parties around a common goal was no mean feat.  “We don’t send different messages to different folks, there is no duplicity,” Mike notes. “Our program is clear but also not all encompassing.  This is an agenda everyone can rally around, community, government, labor, and business.”

Austin Polytechnic High School was created expressly to support the CMRC project.    Its rigorous curriculum graduates students prepared to fill highly skilled, high paying jobs in the sector that have gone unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates.  Despite the many setbacks to be expected in bringing a group of inner city students up to the requisite standards, Locker reports that the manufacturers who support the school have remained patient and enthusiastic.  “The manufacturers have stuck  by the school,” he says. “They understand how hard it is to get someone to show up to work on time and who has the skill sets they need, and who has some degree of company loyalty.”

Mike does not underestimate the hard work ahead to change Americans’ attitude toward the manufacturing sector, which has traditionally been viewed as dirty, unsafe and a despoiler of the environment.   He talked about the many ways that technological advances in manufacturing are helping to minimize throughput  and eliminate waste in the production process, and about the role manufacturing can and must play in the resurrection of the American economy and American cities.

“Manufacturing is crucial to the redevelopment of the United States,” he maintains. “You can’t be a service industry society and expect to be sustainable, you will die, slowly but surely.  If you want to have a vibrant urban culture–and the city is where our populations are heading–you have to produce goods, transit systems, and you have to have value added associated with your production. We are going to have a renaissance in advanced manufacturing in urban centers of the United States. We will design and build things in a completely different way and it will require a trained skilled workforce we don’t have now and it will create a lot of innovation, a lot of new wealth, and a renewed cultural vitality.”

He notes there is a lot of creative debate going on in America about the future of manufacturing. “It is not a simple matter,” he says. “We have to do manufacturing more productively and more sustainably. We must do it in a way that does not contribute to environmental disaster but in a way that contributes to environmental success.  There has to be good pay and benefits associated with it. We are now at the outer limits of the reconstitution and reconfiguration of what we mean by manufacturing. It is an exciting time.”—Susan Arterian Chang is Director of  Capital Institute’s Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy project.