America is better off when we are making things. We have a powerful service economy, but the backbone of our greatness has always been those who make things: our manufacturers, our farmers, our builders, and our innovators. We’ve seen that first-hand in Ohio, where manufacturing is in our blood.
But in order to achieve our potential in manufacturing, create new jobs, and see rising wages in Ohio, Washington needs to get its act together. This includes restructuring federal workforce training to connect hard-working Ohioans with the skills they need to fill available jobs, rolling back burdensome regulations and paperwork that are killing jobs, pursuing an aggressive new national energy policy, and ensuring a level playing field for our workers through better tax and trade policies.
This past August, I traveled over 3,000 miles around Ohio, covering 30 counties and holding over 60 meetings. I met with small business owners, auto workers, and manufacturers of everything from trucks to food to plastics. Despite these different settings, the message was pretty consistent — Ohioans want to see a stronger economy, with not just more jobs but paychecks that are going up, not down. I heard from a lot of people who are feeling the middle class squeeze, with flat wages, higher expenses and a sluggish economy. They want jobs where they can count on a pay raise, afford decent healthcare, invest in their retirement, and save for their children’s education.
On the skills gap, too many Americans are finding they lack needed skills and too many Ohio manufacturers are unable to fill critical jobs. Washington can and must do better to help close this gap. Here are the numbers from Ohio: we have about 265,000 people out of work, yet there are about 198,801 unfilled jobs, many of which are in skilled manufacturing. This is unacceptable. The federal government has all kinds of programs to help close this gap, but they aren’t doing the job.
After learning about these wasteful and duplicative programs, I teamed up with my colleague Senator Michael Bennet to work on bipartisan legislation called the CAREER Act to streamline federal retraining programs and make them more accountable. Some key components of our bill were signed into law as part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act last year. As the law is implemented, we will begin to see improvements, but much more needs to be done to spend tax dollars more efficiently to get the skills training needed for a diverse range of available manufacturing jobs.
Because of my deep concerns over the skill gap, I co-founded and now co-chair the Senate Career and Technical Education (CTE) Caucus, and I will continue to push for passage of legislation I introduced with my Co-Chair, Senator Tim Kaine, to reform our career and technical education system— the Educating Tomorrow’s Workforce Act. Experts tell us an astonishing 81 percent of high school drop outs say that real-world learning opportunities would have kept them in school. Our bill will provide those kinds of opportunities by helping kids get the skills they need to take advantage of good jobs that are available today.
But in order to allow manufacturing jobs to thrive in Ohio, skills training is only part of the answer. It also has to do with smarter regulations, using the energy we have been blessed with, and tax reform. One tax that makes no sense affects Ohio’s biotechnology sector that employs over 60,000 Ohioans.
Unfortunately, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, these medical device companies across Ohio and the nation are required to pay a new 2.3 percent excise tax, costing Ohio jobs and slowing innovation in the medical device arena. Even worse, instead of taxing a company’s profit, the excise tax in the Act applies to revenue—without regard to whether the company is actually making any money.
Anything that kills jobs and hurts Ohio businesses is a bad idea. It’s time to roll back this misguided tax that stands in the way of growth, jobs, and opportunity in Ohio.
Finally, in order to boost manufacturing in Ohio, we must open more export markets for “Made in America” products and stop unfairly traded imports. A balanced approach of more exports combined with tougher enforcement of our trade laws is how to generate more and better-paying Ohio jobs.
This year I worked with Senator Sherrod Brown and Ohio manufacturers to pass the Leveling the Playing Field Act. Our new law gives Ohio workers the relief they need when foreign competitors cheat trade rules. It makes it easier for American companies to prove they have been harmed by illegal imports by changing the “material injury standard” and speeding up relief. It may sound complicated, but it is pretty simple: we believe companies and workers should be able to get help from our government before foreign competitors drive them out of business and send them to the unemployment line. Although our Leveling the Playing Field legislation is brand new, it is already making a difference, at places like Cooper Tire in Findlay and AK Steel in Zanesville.
Despite the headwinds in Washington, I have been able to buck the system and work on a bipartisan basis to ensure that Ohio workers can do what they do best – make things! There is much more work to be done, but I will continue to fight for policies to add good-paying Ohio manufacturing jobs.
Rob Portman is the US Senator and weekly columnist.