By Rich Rovito

The way Scott Paul sees it, 2014 needs to be a year of action for the manufacturing sector.

Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), a partnership established in 2007 by some of the country’s leading manufacturers and the United Steelworkers union, insists there are reasons to be optimistic about manufacturing. However, he warns that there are lingering concerns that need to be addressed in order to further bolster the manufacturing sector, the traditional lifeblood of America’s middle class citizenry.

“I think there are reasons to be optimistic about certain aspects of public policy that supports manufacturing,” said Paul, who previously worked on the legislative staff of the AFL-CIO and has testified before committees of the House and Senate and frequently appears on television news shows.

Paul will give a presentation at the Manufacturing Matters! conference on Feb. 27 in Milwaukee, put on by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, that will focus on trends that are driving U.S. manufacturing.

He applauded an initiative at the federal level to focus on skills development and training, specifically for careers in manufacturing.

Paul also believes that President Barack Obama’s ongoing focus on manufacturing could pay dividends for the sector in the long run, particularly when it comes to recruiting workers to fill open jobs.

“The most valuable thing he can do is to continue to talk about (manufacturing),” Paul said. “It sends a very strong message.”

Embedded in that message is that it isn’t necessary to possess a four-year college degree to land a satisfying job that offers a family supporting wage, he said.

On a recent visit to Wisconsin, where he was promoting his job training proposals and an overall effort to breathe live back into American manufacturing, Obama claimed “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than with an art history degree.”

The gist of the president’s message was that students don’t necessarily need a four-year college education to succeed if they develop the necessary skills and get the appropriate training to work in a manufacturing environment.

Paul also sees positives in Obama’s promise to cut through the red tape that has been holding back infrastructure improvements, such as repairs and upgrades to roads, bridges, ports and the energy grid. Such investments will improve efficiency and thus bolster the economy, Paul said.

Still, challenges remain for the manufacturing sector, he claims.

The United States’ global trade imbalance needs to be addressed, Paul said. It’s also important to continue to harness traditional and renewable sources of energy at home in order to give the country a competitive advantage for energy-intensive manufacturers.

As manufacturers search for the next generation of workers, Paul believes that the tide is turning as students and younger job seekers now are showing more of a desire to embark on careers in manufacturing.

“The challenge isn’t that young people aren’t interested in manufacturing,” he said. “The challenge is that we need to  rebuild the training infrastructure.”

This can be accomplished, in part, by re-establishing partnerships between manufacturers and technical colleges, Paul said.

“There is certainly a lot more interest. There isn’t as much of an image problem anymore,” Paul said. “It’s much more about barriers.”

Some signs point to optimism as far as manufacturing employment is concerned, including a boost in the average hours worked per week among employees in the industrial sector.

“This indicates that there has to be some hiring soon,” Paul said.

At the same time, the sector saw a net increase of just 77,000 jobs in 2013.

“That’s basically treading water,” he said.

Paul’s presentation at Manufacturing Matters! will focus on current trends and how they are affecting manufacturers, including a surging interest in “made in America” products and the “reshoring” phenomenon that has some manufacturers reconsidering overseas production operations.

“That used to be the default position,” he said. “Now there’s a different opinion.”