Manufacturing On The Front Burner At Clinton Forum

John Fernandez had some blunt words in Chicago Wednesday for a room full of manufacturing experts.

“Let’s be honest about how we got here,” said Fernandez, the assistant Commerce Department secretary for economic development. “We adopted a macro policy that said, ‘invented here, make it here, it doesn’t really matter.'” He added, “Where you make things makes a huge impact.”

CGI America Opening Plenary

Fernandez joined mayors, CEOs, labor leaders, economic development officials and consultants from across the United States at the two-day Clinton Global Initiative America, hosted by former President Bill Clinton and held at the Sheraton Chicago.

Along with hearing from the former president and other VIPs, the participants break into working groups that make recommendations for policy steps.

The Chicago seminar marks the first time that Clinton’s initiative has focused on domestic issues. Clinton’s former economic advisor, Laura Tyson, presented some striking figures on the decline in manufacturing jobs to CGI America’s opening session.

She said manufacturing jobs had fallen 25 percent since 2005. Companies have 3 million job openings, and if all were filled, the nation’s unemployment rate would be cut in half, she said.

Fernandez, the assistant Commerce secretary for economic development, told participants in a manufacturing working group that the nation’s industrial policies — or lack of them — bore some of the blame for the big decline in manufacturing jobs the past decade.

Fernandez also said economic developers have spent too much time looking at big-picture subjects and forgetting the impact that individual investments can have. “We focus so much on the macro that we forget about the micro,” Fernandez said. “Our regions are where we plant the seed corn.”

The Commerce official said it isn’t enough to talk about the future of manufacturing. “We have to think about what America would look like if we don’t succeed,” he said. “We have a tremendous challenge ahead of us, but it can be done.” (Although the working group’s deliberations were off the record, Fernandez gave us permission to use his remarks.)

Today, the conference hears from a variety of speakers including Indiana’s governor, Mitch Daniels, and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Clinton will be joined this afternoon by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, then the conference will announce a series of commitments by cities, companies and others aimed at creating jobs.

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