The Importance of Partnership

Crossposted at Ideas Lab

The day after the State of the Union address, the President of the United States boarded Air Force One and flew to an important – if unlikely – destination. Upon arriving in Asheville, NC, President Obama visited a retooled Volvo factory that now makes engine blocks for heavy equipment. The 150 employee facility visited by the President could be the face of the next economy.

Without manufacturing, we can’t have a strong middle class; and without a strong middle class, we can’t have a strong America. Although the days of manufacturing everyday items in America are seemingly in the rear view mirror, we can – and should – lead the world in advanced manufacturing. (Readers of Ideas Lab are aware that the term ‘advanced manufacturing’ means high tech products like advanced batteries, wind turbines, or biotech advancements that rely on workers with specialized skills, education, and innovation.)

I recently wrote a paper titled Acceleration 2.0 that detailed the findings of the Next Economy Partnership Project’s research regarding job creation and jumpstarting the economy. Along with clean energy and innovation infrastructure, Americans believe that advanced manufacturing is critical to building an economy with – to borrow a line from the President – jobs that are built to last. However, at the heart of our research is a finding that more in Washington should heed. Although partisans get caught up on arguments over more government versus less government, what Americans really want is smart government – a catalyst for big breakthrough projects and a standard setter to make sure people play by the rules.

A prime example of smart government is the Obama Administration’s effort on advanced manufacturing. This effort spans a range of initiatives including the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) and National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI.)

The key word for this suite of initiatives is ‘partnership.’ Upon its inception in 2011, the goal of the public-private Advanced Manufacturing Partnership was to define areas where academia, the private sector and communities could have a collaborative relationship. This ‘bottom up’ strategy is not only critical to get buy in from state and local governments and the private sector; it also helps bring great ideas from different corners of America. By using federal money to leverage partnerships that might not occur otherwise, these initiatives are fostering innovation and providing the structure for an entity that can thrive well beyond the lifespan of the initial investment.

The Obama administration efforts have focused on two big, interrelated issues – technology development and workforce development – with partnership as the core guiding principle. As you might expect, technology is critical to advanced manufacturing. To help develop the technology side, AMP encourages partnerships between some of America’s great educational institutions like Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University with federal agencies and industry leaders. In this context, facilities like the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy can partner with premier academic institutions to accelerate cutting edge technologies from both sides.

Just as the Volvo plant in Asheville needed to be retooled, America’s workforce needs a skill retooling. On workforce development, AMP is investing heavily in project based learning and community colleges. Again, using federal money as a catalyst, community colleges are being reformulated into places to connect workers not only with relevant modern skills, but also with jobs. In the Asheville example, Linamar partnered with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College to develop a curriculum specific to jobs at the new Linamar facility. Partnerships like this are happening at community colleges across America, including Volkswagen and Chattanooga State’s partnership with Volkswagen. This partnership model highlights a component of this equation that often gets overlooked – important efforts undertaken by the private sector. Forward looking companies know that for their own futures, they need to invest in the serious work of skills retooling and on the job experiential training. Simply signing a letter in support of the local community college isn’t enough these days. Huge companies like Caterpillar, GE and Ford are making significant investments to ‘insource’ jobs in America. Deep private sector engagement is critical for sustained success in advanced manufacturing and, more broadly, in an innovation-based economy.

(For more thoughts on what’s needed to scale up advanced manufacturing, you can read this piece on Ideas Lab.)

The President’s manufacturing initiatives have accomplished a great deal in a short span of time. The Obama Administration has three more NNMI affiliated manufacturing institutes ready to roll out, but without action from Congress, the full vision of 15 won’t be achieved. Here’s hoping Congress can look past the blinders of daily partisan wrestling matches and acknowledge smart policy on economic development. The impact of initiatives like AMP and NNMI will be seen over the next several years. Catalytic investment will help ignite an advanced manufacturing renaissance, creating jobs across the country. But another legacy of smart partnerships like AMP or NNMI will be seen in Washington. In several years, we may look at President Obama’s manufacturing initiatives as the moment Washington shifted towards smart, flexible federalism.