America Still Needs to Save the Rust Belt | Opinion

The U.S. is still reeling from the wounds caused by the decline of its industrial and manufacturing base. It is a decline that has led to inequality, social division and political polarization, most acutely felt since 2016. America will not heal—politically or economically—until it invests in a high-tech 21st manufacturing industry that can create the jobs and growth we need.

The urgency of this is not felt everywhere. Coastal, Sun-Belt regions are receiving a greater share of educated, ambitious Americans, with the Rust Belt being left behind. This creates demographic changes which can lead to a painfully divided country. This must be reversed.

Almost a third of adults in the United States have moved in the last five years. They are disproportionately college-educated Americans looking for high-paying work in places like Seattle, New York or California.

This brain drain destroys communities because when the young and educated abandon a town, they take economic growth with them. Ohio's Trumbull County is a case in point, and a microcosm of post-industrial America. The month after GM went dormant, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the county's population had dipped below the 200,000 mark for the first time since 1950.

Those left behind often have nothing but unemployment and addiction. The opioid crisis has been raging in Trumbull County at three times the national average. Unfortunately, the only things booming there were addiction treatment and home demolition businesses.

Unsurprisingly, this has a political fallout. Trumbull was one of the 217 Barack Obama counties that flipped for Donald Trump, the first time the county had "gone red" since Richard Nixon's landslide against George McGovern in 1972. Fixed political affiliations are a luxury many cannot afford when their livelihoods are on the line.

As long as America's manufacturing jobs are declining, along with the communities dependent on them, the anger that fueled that vote will not go away. President Joe Biden's talk of healing will fall on deaf ears if we don't invest in bringing those jobs back—in a future-proof, 21st century form.

The number of manufacturing jobs declined by a third between 2000 and 2010. Every one of those jobs could be the difference between a family enjoying a dignified middle class existence or ending up on the streets. The vast majority of Americans surveyed by Edelman believe that America is in the throes of a "cold civil war," with the young educated flocking to high-paying metropolises and traditional blue collar workers staying behind.

A view of Johnstown, Pennsylvania
A view of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

If we restart American manufacturing it won't just benefit those communities, or our entire political culture—it will make us stronger as a country. In 2020, America faced a serious PPE shortage due to supply chain disruptions from abroad. Supply chains for microchips are going through a similar crisis now, due to our dependence on China.

Relying on imports also harms our economy. In order to save the American economy, we cannot continue to weaken the USD by consistently importing expensive goods when those goods could easily be created at home.

It is unrealistic to expect those workers to retrain as coders or game testers. It is similarly unrealistic to want to turn the clock back to traditional (and often outdated) manufacturing jobs in industries whose best days are behind them. We need to give the manufacturing and industrial industries a facelift. A manufacturing job today does not mean repetitive physical labor in a sweaty factory; it can involve a convergence of skills that rely on the use of the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, including machine learning, Big Data, the internet of things and virtual reality.

That can be as attractive to college graduates as blue collar workers. Wall Street or Silicon Valley don't need to be the sole entry point to an intellectually fulfilling and financially attractive career.

To create those industries and jobs, we need high-tech manufacturing, as well as research and development. Institutions like Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh have been widely credited with the industrial revivals in previously hard-hit, ex-industrial Rust-Belt areas. As a result, Pittsburgh has been dubbed one of the coolest neighborhoods in America by American millennials in 2017. It has a great university, a growing, educated and diverse workforce and close co-operation between public, private, academic and nonprofit sectors.

We have three choices. We can try to turn the clock back by subsidizing old industries that have a limited shelf life (that might solve the problem for an election cycle or two, but just kicks the can down the road). We can do nothing, and call those left behind deplorables. Or we can make real, long-term investments in our manufacturing future, and strengthen our communities, economy and our nation.

Jordan Erskine is an entrepreneur and co-founded many businesses over 17 years in the personal care/skincare industry. He currently serves as president for the award-winning contract manufacturer Dynamic Blending.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.