Commentary: Pandemic reveals continued importance of manufacturing

May 13, 2020 7:29 am
A United Auto Workers member. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

A United Auto Workers member. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Since its beginnings, the American economy has gone through countless changes. 

We’ve seen both times of prosperity and times of hardship. 

We’ve seen several recessions and subsequent recoveries. 

One of the biggest changes that we’ve seen, especially in recent years, is the shift from a manufacturing economy to a mostly service-based economy.   

Make no mistake, manufacturing is still a critical component of both our national and state economies.

According to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, our state still exports over $24 billion in manufactured products annually.  

While that’s an impressive number, it doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. 

Just six months ago, PBS published a report noting that manufacturing doesn’t carry the same weight that it once did. 

The same report also touched on whether a decline in manufacturing would negatively impact the longest period of economic growth in U.S. history, hinting that experts did not think that would be the case. 

Keep in mind that this was several months before any Americans had ever heard of the coronavirus or had any idea that what we consider to be “normal” would disappear seemingly overnight.   

Because the entire country (including Tennessee) has become such a service-based economy, I’m very concerned that we’re going to struggle to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If nothing else, the past couple of months have shown that our society is heavily dependent on the service industry. 

Given that reality, the question remains of where that’s going to leave us as a country.

Billy Dycus, president, Tennessee AFL-CIO (Photo: Submitted)
Billy Dycus, president, Tennessee AFL-CIO (Photo: Submitted)

One of the issues that’s come up frequently since COVID-19 overtook the headlines has been a president’s ability to activate the Defense Production Act, which allows private companies to meet national defense needs. 

The goal of the act is to ensure that the private sector is producing enough goods as quickly as possible that are needed for a national emergency, just like the one that we’re currently dealing with. 

While the president has not fully activated the Defense Production Act, the United States is no longer the industrial giant of the world and is dependent on other countries for manufactured goods. 

When you stop and think about it for a second, it’s not only scary but also signifies that we’re in trouble. 

Our reliance on the service industry as a society also raises the question of what could happen during the next crisis. 

So, what lessons can we take away from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the American economy? 

First and foremost, it’s become clear that we simply can’t ignore or neglect industrial manufacturing. 

Instead of shipping what were once good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas, we need to keep them on U.S. soil and invest in their development. 

We’ve also learned that we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket when it comes to our dependence on the service economy. 

As we all know, major Tennessee cities like Nashville and Memphis have taken a gut-punch since COVID-19 closures went into effect. 

One of the biggest revenue sources for both of those locations? Tourism and other related services.  

Another lesson this crisis has taught us is that we can’t always depend on Tennessee’s tourism industry for boosts to local governments’ budgets. 

When that falters, it’s become clear that we falter, too.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone in different ways, and there’s no denying that our economy has taken a major hit. 

The good news is that we can rearrange our priorities and start down the road to recovery. 

By learning from the many lessons that have been brought to the surface and putting them into practice, we will be much better prepared to address (and hopefully even avoid) the same mistakes that future crises may bring. 

The stakes are too high to do anything else.


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Billy Dycus
Billy Dycus

Billy Dycus is the president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, which represents more than 60,000 workers statewide.