To the South’s economic development community: The dangers of economic development catch phrases such as "advanced manufacturing"
By Mike Randle, Editor
Someone hung up on me while I did an interview for this edition. That hasn't happened to me since Dave Cooley – then the President of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce – hung up on me in about 1993. I was horrified by Cooley's action because I was new at economic development journalism in 1993. After all, Cooley was a legend, and I can still hear him say things that would eventually pave the way to the practice of regionalism, such as "There's no fence around this damn thing!" In addition to being a legend, Cooley was also hard to deal with.
After the second phone hang-up in my economic development journalism career – this was no legend, but a pup in economic development – happened this summer, I tried to understand why. That's hard to do for me. I talk too much. I yap on the phone, in a speech and during interviews. Today you find yourself yapping in front of a phone in this age of low-quality You Tube blogging journalism. I yap some more, regardless. I figure, right or wrong, at least I have something to yap about.
So, during this phone conversation, I had to pinpoint what part of my yapping made this person hang up. That's difficult considering I probably yapped a minute or two after the person hung up.
Then I realized she had hit my last nerve with the phrase "advanced manufacturing" during the call. It was probably the 1,000th time I had heard the phrase over the last few years and my mind simply told my yapping mouth to explain to this person that I was tired of the phrase advanced manufacturing. I find the phrase slightly arrogant and I can’t think of a better time to explain why I feel that way than in our annual “Made in the South” edition.
Does the phrase advanced manufacturing mean that less advanced manufacturing is wrong, therefore unwanted? Does the phrase "we are focusing on advanced manufacturing" mean economic development agencies in the South, after the worst economy in our lifetimes, are not focused on any industry sector – advanced or not – that creates jobs?
Advanced manufacturing is similar to the catch phrase “high-tech,” used so much in the 1990s. Successful economic developers actually lost their jobs in that decade if they didn’t land a high-tech project because distribution and call centers, so prominent in the 1990s, didn’t count to some politicos. They weren’t “advanced” enough.
Here’s a prediction: There will be as many "less advanced" manufacturing jobs created in the South from now until 2020 as "advanced manufacturing" jobs. In fact, there will probably be more. The proof is already there. Furniture manufacturing, metals, mining, paper and wood products, textiles, building products and other less advanced manufacturers are announcing projects all over the region. And that wave – the reshoring wave – has just started.
Here’s an example: "Mike, you are correct in your assessment of Chinese operations moving back to the USA. Comfort Revolution is moving its Chinese manufacturing operation to our county. This is the second company that has reshored from China to Tishomingo County, Miss. The first was KX Technologies, a Berkshire Hathaway company." That email came from Gary Matthews, who runs the economic development agency in Tishomingo County, Miss., a rural South operation. By the way, Comfort Revolution makes mattresses. Those types of projects will be all over much of the South like kudzu in two years.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I noticed the quote this summer on The Primetime Agency’s Web site. Primetime is an ad agency in Gulfport, Miss., owned by my old friend Ted Riemann. The quote hits home with me.
So now I have made others in economic development in the South mad at me for calling them fools for using the phrase advanced manufacturing, not unlike the person who hung up on me. Yet, do y’all realize that the vast majority of economic development practitioners in the South are saying the same thing … advanced manufacturing?
Folks, I am simply trying to be real. States in the South just got hammered for almost three years, particularly our rural areas. We cannot afford to be picky. And at the negotiating table we can’t afford to appear cavalier.
Lastly, I met a great guy while visiting Arkansas in the summer. His name is Glen Fenter. You can read about him in the Arkansas section in this issue. I asked Dr. Fenter about this "advanced manufacturing" thing that is apparently sweeping the South and has entered the yap of almost every economic developer in the region. Dr. Fenter said, "Mike, if it pays $15 an hour, we don't care if it is retarded manufacturing." Dr. Fenter, an educator, used the word retarded, as in less advanced than less advanced manufacturing.