Made in the USA vs. Free Trade – it’s complicated

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While watching the news this week, my wife Linda asked me “Are you a true believer in free trade?” As I thought of a response, I was reminded of why manufacturers began to leave the USA. Yes, many were chasing low labor, but the reality is that many companies were chasing quarterly earnings while operating out of post-World War II factories with limited investment. Abroad, the companies were investing in new plants with updated capital, automation and driving low manufacturing cost as well as having low labor costs compared to the US.

In my corporate procurement and supply chain career, I’ve worked for organizations that had short term focus, lack of (or misdirected) investment and poor strategy. Unfortunately, some no longer exist. The point is that tariffs and duties on imported goods alone will not save US manufacturing. Being the low-cost producer involves investing in the future and developing sound business strategies; that is the key to surviving and thriving.

Free Trade will drive buyers to the low cost, efficient suppliers wherever they are. The high cost, inefficient suppliers can be propped up by protection, but are not likely to survive in the long term. Some supply chains, like the electronic industry, have made the long-term investments elsewhere and have already achieved technology advances, low cost and may never return to the US. The automated factories that return will require different employee skillsets than the industries that left the US and we may not have a ready labor force if manufacturing is reshored.

As procurement and supply chain professionals, we need to develop all suppliers to be efficient, operate at the lowest cost and invest in innovation and automation. I believe that sound strategies, investment and a commitment to the future will lead to the most competitive suppliers, wherever they are located.

It’s a complicated question:

Do you believe in Free Trade?

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