For the Reuters multimedia project Route to Recovery, a team of journalists toured America to examine the impact of the recession and posted their reports on reuters.com. For the last installment in the series, reporter Nick Carey has written an extended overview of the challenges and opportunities facing the country. The second part of this three-part report is below. Click here for part one.
Leslie Taito is executive director of Rhode Island Manufacturing Extension Services (RIMES), a nonprofit that provides consultation for small and medium-sized manufacturers in Rhode Island, a state of 1 million people.
Rhode Island was the home of America’s first mechanized cotton mill, but since Taito arrived 16 years ago, the number of manufacturers here has fallen to 1,945 from 2,800. Still, she believes that all of those that are left can be helped to survive and thrive — and the best way is to get smart and not try to compete with low-cost Chinese producers.
“Manufacturers have to specialize and find a niche where they develop high-end goods that are not sold just based on cost,” Taito said. “Sure, China can make it cheaper than we can,” she said, while weaving in and out of traffic en route through the heart of Providence. “But what they don’t have is the design or engineering capabilities that we do.”
Maria Montero carries plastic products for quality control inspection at Blow Molded Plastics in Pawtucket, Rhode Island November 17, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
One of the companies that RIMES has worked with in the past is Pawtucket-based Blow Molded Specialties, which makes products from hot plastic that is blown into molds where it sets. Its clients are predominantly in the healthcare sector.
President and majority owner Tom Boyd describes how the company’s largest customer switched production of a basic product to Mexico because it could be made there for 2 cents apiece instead of 8 cents in the United States.
That company had accounted for some 35 percent of business. “That was nearly the end of us,” Boyd said with a wry smile.
So instead of trying to compete on low-cost products, Boyd’s company specializes in high-end, complicated and intricate products, and even develops products for customers.
In the company’s meeting room, he shows off some of the firm’s products including one which looks almost like a plastic accordion and is about the same size, with evident pride.
This, he explains, is a plastic bellows his firm developed for a healthcare company, whose name he says he cannot divulge. It has a special function. Conventional practice in organ transplants has been to ship organs on ice. But Boyd says it has been found that a better way to ship organs is to keep them functioning, and the bellows he holds in his hands is part of a device to keep a set of lungs pumping while in transit.
Asked how much Blow Molded charges for a pump like this, Boyd shrugs his slight shoulders. “Maybe a few dollars each. And we only sold a few of them.”
But then he leans forward with right eyebrow and right forefinger raised. “Ah, but you see, the money’s not in the product,” he said, his grin widening. “The money’s in the engineering. We bill our customers for the development work we do.”
Communities around the country say they want to attract small firms like Blow Molded rather than focus on major corporations, for the simple reason that when a giant plant shuts down, it is almost impossible to replace the jobs lost.
The classic example is Wilmington, Ohio, where empty store fronts on Main Street are grim testimony to what happened when DHL axed nearly 10,000 jobs.
“When a big company like that goes, it leaves a very large hole to fill,” said Mayor David Raizk (pronounced “risk.”)
“I’d rather see 200 small companies with 50 employees each than one big one,” he said. “You can lose one, two or even 10 of those and find a way to replace them. Big companies are great when they’re in town, but when they leave they devastate communities.”
A pelican flies near a fisherman in Pensacola, Florida November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
One such small firm is Computer Technology Solutions Inc, the largest privately-held software firm in Alabama, which has added some 40 jobs this year and now employs 150 people. “If that’s what we can do in a recession, imagine how we can do when the economy improves,” said president Sanjay Singh.
CTS got its start in a business incubator run by the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Singh said that unlike big corporations — which tend to be bureaucratic, slow-moving and inclined to withhold responsibility from young employees — CTS gives its 20-something employees multimillion-dollar projects to run on their own.
“If you give young people responsibility, they deliver,” he said. “We don’t hang over our employees’ shoulders waiting for them to get things done, we just let them do it.”
GREEN ECONOMY A LONG HAUL
There are great expectations that alternative energy or the “green economy” will help move America forward.
According to Lisa Frantzis, managing director for energy at Navigant Consulting Inc, in 2009, 7,000 megawatts of wind power was installed in America with the creation of 70,000 jobs — 50,000 direct and indirect jobs, plus 20,000 service-related jobs. Solar power saw 300 megawatts installed with the creation of 60,000 jobs.
Jay Paidipati, a Navigant managing consultant who works with Frantzis, said because of the industry’s breadth and relative youth, it is hard to make forecasts. “I would feel comfortable saying that the number of green jobs will be in the millions,” he said. “Just how many millions, I don’t know.”
Mesquite Lake Cattle Manure Power Plant is seen in El Centro, California, November 3, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
It will be years, however, before that potential is realized. One of the main problems is the mass of rules and regulations that make building plants a lengthy process.
Imperial County in southern California has hit on a novel way to get around red tape, using a provision of state law that allows local authorities to streamline the approval process for building a plant, as long as it is under 50 megawatts.
This loophole enables officials to handle the approval process in as little as a year, compared to several years at the state level.
“Getting anything done in California is hard,” said Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Tim Kelley, at his office in El Centro some 100 miles (160 km) east of San Diego. “But it is less hard to get it done here.”
This area has 360 days of sun a year and has suitable geological conditions for geothermal power — there are 10 such plants already. Thirty others for solar, geothermal and wind facilities, are in the process of acquiring permits.
Red tape is not the only challenge.
Paul Rich is chief development officer at Deepwater Wind LLC, which aims to develop America’s first offshore wind farm, in Rhode Island. The farm, which would eventually provide 15 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity, should come in two phases. The first test phase with six to eight turbines could be installed off the coast by 2012. By around 2015 the wind farm would contain around 100 wind turbines.
Rich described the coast between Maine and Maryland as the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” predicting an “enormous, exponential leap in jobs, manufacturing and infrastructure.”
Part of the reason for the long lead time is the need for extensive tests of local wind conditions, he said.
“It won’t happen overnight,” Rich said. “We are trying to create a truly new industry here and it has to be done right.”
“A far bigger concern for us is finding a qualified workforce to run and maintain the wind farm when it becomes operational.”
In blighted states like Michigan, many former manufacturing workers are already training for green jobs, even though relatively few have been created.
Matthew Derra, 41, lost his job at struggling auto supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc in July 2008. Now he is taking an associate degree in renewable energy and wants to find a job maintaining wind turbines.
“There’s nothing out there in my old field of work,” he said. “And there will be thousands of people out there chasing every green job, but I have to try.”
“I can’t just sit home and watch television.”
April Metts watches television at her apartment in Providence, Rhode Island November 18, 2009. Metts was homeless for several years before getting into her subsidized apartment as part of the Housing First RI initiative. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Even in California, which has America’s most aggressive climate change regulations, just 159,000 of the state’s 18 million jobs are considered “green” as of the start of 2008, according to public policy group Next 10.
Still, there are encouraging signs that money is flowing into renewable energy even in a sluggish economy.
Bill Gibson, is a business broker and principal of Gibson & Associates Inc in Pensacola, Florida. Gibson finds buyers for companies that want to sell.
He noted that companies selling luxury items are having trouble finding buyers because gun-shy banks won’t lend for that kind of investment, but he has noticed a lot more interest in renewable or alternative energy firms.
“There are definitely going to be haves and have-nots,” Gibson said. “Green energy is part of the future.”
The green energy industry is also seen as an opportunity for manufacturing firms to retool.
“What concerns me is when I hear people talking about manufacturing in the past tense,” said Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing. “If we want wind turbines, someone here should manufacture them.”
The Vulcan statue is seen at Vulcan Park in Birmingham, Alabama November 14, 2009. The Vulcan statue is a symbol of old times at the iron industry in Birmingham. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
GEEKS AT THE TABLE
Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, keeps a board covered in bad news — headlines from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Economist about how badly the economy of the state has been faring. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 12.7 percent in November, the second highest in the country after Michigan.
“Our problems have made not just national but international headlines,” White said. “That motivates me to find a new way forward.”
Rhode Island is pinning its hopes on a strategy dubbed “Strengthening Providence’s Knowledge Economy.” It has involved bringing together local and state government, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) and hundreds of small hi-tech software companies.
“The geeks have finally been offered a seat at the table,” said business consultant Jack Templin.
White said there was an easy explanation: “The geeks are just about the only ones creating jobs right now.”
Companies like Working Planet, which handles algorithmic online market research for its clients, are now at the table.
“Up until a few years ago the chamber was focused on major companies and its existing membership base,” said Working Planet Marketing Group Inc president and co-founder Soren Ryherd. “Over the past three years the chamber has done an about face and is now also about the smaller companies that are creating jobs.”
“We have also become more organized because we need to reach the local universities so we can find and retain top talent,” he added.
Mike Saul is the interim executive director of the RIEDC and has spent much of his career as a “turnaround guy” taking poorly performing companies and making them thrive. He wants to do the same here, in part because three of his four children, like many of the state’s offspring, live outside Rhode Island because there was no work here for them.
“In any turnaround that is going to work you have to ask where is the enterprise value that I can push forward,” he said. According to Saul, the state’s education system and its wind potential create much of its enterprise value.
“Rhode Island’s attempts at economic development have been episodic in the past, but this time everyone is on the same page,” Saul said. “A crisis makes things happen. It helps individuals reinvent themselves and will help this country reinvent itself.”
A U.S. flag decal is stuck to the window in a door to the Harrington Hall homeless shelter in Cranston, Rhode Island November 18, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder