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Grands Projets’ing our way to jobs

November 2, 2010

James Dyson, the brilliant UK engineer, inventor and businessman was asked by the Conservative Government to lead a panel on how to reindustrialize Britain to the point where, as the study’s sub-title states, the country unites in ‘making the UK the leading high tech exporter in Europe’.  Given Germany’s current ownership of that role, this is really a big audacious goal and worthy of energizing a nation.

The March 2010 report, available online, is a rallying cry for that country to build a go-forward sustainable economy based on investments, exports and savings.  Being the quintessential engineer and inventor type, he focuses on high tech, but his definition of high tech is illuminating in that it’s not just Silicon Valley, but ‘ those who, regardless of the sector they are in, are making genuine investments in research and development to gain an advantage over their international counterparts’. Given the reality of Chinese labor underpricing the West, and continuing to do so even as Chinese wages sort of rise (forget about them revaluing their currency – their prime directive is internal stability, not world happiness with their policies), the UK focusing on higher value items makes sense as does Germany with great success.

This report looks around the few ley areas which directly affect the potential to become that lead exporter:

  • Culture change to give high societal praise to engineers and scientists
  • Education in Engineering and sciences, including the basic sciences
  • Exploiting knowledge between various Universities, not for profits and other companies
  • Financing high tech start-ups with venture capital and grants
  • Sustaining R&D through public policy and tax incentives

So let’s compare this to our current state.  We talk about buying American again, from what we hear during our Accelerated Market Research sessions to integrate the Voice of the Consumer into our clients, to of all places, a broadcast last night on NPR.  Remember the old joke with the punch line “who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?”  What’s real and what’s talk? I took the easy path and Googled, finding a single academic, peer reviewed article from a City University of New York (CUNY) publication dedicated to new thinking about Labor issues.  ‘Reindustrializing America’, (also my search term) from the Spring issue of New Labor Forum talks about some very similar concepts to the Dyson report, particularly the need for inspiring national goals, such as high speed rail and renewable energy equipment.

But this report is different in that unlike the Dyson report’s long term focus, the authors have an ingenious plan which could begin to show benefits within a year –over the next 5 years,  increase by 50%, the number of public transportation buses on the streets of our communities. The idea is to have government order busses, revitalizing the automobile industry (GMC busses, for example), cut pollution (presumably by using the hybrid and CNG technology already in place on NY busses, for example), reduce dependence on fossil fuels and ease the commuting burden on those who cannot afford cars. It would also have another very positive effect, not mentioned in the article.  National obesity experts all say everyone, particularly those in the urban centers, needs to eat a healthier diet, rebalanced towards fruits and vegetables away from sugary and fatty sodas and processed food. Of course, many urban centers do not have decent grocery stores and therefore transporting bags of higher volume vegetables and fruits is hard on the skimpy bus services typically serving outlying city neighborhoods.  With more busses, perhaps even dedicated to starting/ending their routes at key grocery stores, we can also improve the health of a generation of kids, saving society significant healthcare costs down the road. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and trust me on this, we weren’t exactly overflowing with vegetables and we had an OK grocery within walking distance.

Next, I wanted to see what the Corner Office Orthodoxy had to say and so I went to the Harvard Business Review website and searched for ‘reindustrialization’. No responses. Hum, so I tried ‘jobs’.  First hit – ‘Guide to Getting a Job’.  Not promising, but the second hit was ‘Wealth and Jobs, the Hidden Link’ by the Dean of the Harvard Business School, dated Nov 1st and so pretty current.  Her input was less than the roadmap I had hoped for (and expected, to be honest)

‘I don’t have the answers, though government policies and business practices that promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and the formation of skilled human capital seem essential. Executives and politicians must find new ways to link value creation and job creation.’

If this group doesn’t have answers, or at least some ideas to be actively considered, refined and implemented, who does? At least less elite CUNY had a plan. Her article sounded very similar to the global outlook expressed by a really smart journalist on a Charlie Rose program focusing on how this country has changed and our companies, being Silicon Valley and services oriented (Facebook and Google were mentioned) now see themselves as global players.  This is true, but this pundit was quietly dismissive of people who were not at the SAT/IQ/education levels in these firms and even when Charlie Rose asked him what we should do, he simply said that, “things are changing”.  I lived in a country undergoing social strife and let me assure the global thinkers it’s less personally  threatening to deal with people in other countries wanting more of our jobs sent there than it is to see local people take their fates into their own hands.

Bottom line is we have to regain national will, control national spending but still spend wisely.  We need a national dialogue on how to marshal our talent, restore stature to engineers and scientists (now that the generation who saw aerospace engineers being laid off in droves have sort of forgotten that time), on how to best utilize our national workforce, our venture capital markets (with their long term view of growing companies) and reinstall a bit of protectionism.  We need to ensure, like the DoD required years ago, that components of systems and gear be manufactured, not just assembled, in the US and reward core R&D as well.  The multiplier effect of those bus orders will be immediate and widespread.  Give any business person a 5 year vision and they will hire. Give them a 6-month tax break, reflecting tactic but no national vision, and don’t bother even asking what about jobs.

Where’s our James Dyson and can he help us order those buses?

Rich Eichen is the Founder and a Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is http://www.growroe.com and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program and Interim Executives with over 25 years’ experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT and key initiatives. He can be reached at richard.eichen@growroe.com

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