Is Manufacturing a Viable Path Forward for Cities?

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The advanced industry sector represents a potential source of great economic prosperity for cities – but only if city leaders can invest in its vitality.

(Getty Images)
According to a recent report published by the Brookings Institution, “Advanced industries represent a sizable economic anchor for the U.S. economy and have led the post-recession employment recovery. Modest in size, the sector packs a massive economic punch.” (Getty Images)

In response to the loss of 5,000 manufacturing jobs over the past two decades, the city of Waterbury, Connecticut, launched the Waterbury Career Academy High School to train the next generation of manufacturers, computer specialists and allied health workers. The very first class of students will graduate from the manufacturing program next spring with a leg up to hopefully gain employment within the city.

This new vocational high school is just one prong of a multi-strategy effort to revive a modern manufacturing economy. Much like Waterbury, cities across the country have experienced significant manufacturing losses. In total, 2.3 million manufacturing jobs were lost during the recession, and less than half (40 percent) of these jobs have been regained.

A key consideration faced by policymakers right now is whether or not it’s worthwhile for cities to continue to focus on manufacturing as a path toward economic vitality. One question often asked is: Are these old jobs just never coming back?

The answer is that a new wave of manufacturing is poised to create new job growth and economic opportunity for cities.

Advanced industries are the new foundation for manufacturing. According to research from the Brookings Institution, manufacturers of the future will develop aerospace equipment, provide telecommunications services, and support advancements in agriculture. (A full list of advanced industries is available here).

Cities, such as Waterbury, that are able to create nimble environments for innovation and skills acquisition can build on their manufacturing assets and adapt to new needs of advanced industries. Cleveland, for example, is using land use strategies to promote industrial zones and cultivate manufacturing opportunities. The Green City Growers program turned unused land into a greenhouse with over three acres of fresh vegetables and herbs that supply local restaurants and wholesalers as well as produce stands at the city’s West Side Market.

The immediate benefits of Green City Growers are the more than 30 new jobs in the employee-owned company and the expansion of the greenhouse industry in the region. In the long-term, this redevelopment project encourages an ecosystem of shopping local, increases access to healthy food, and holds the potential for better health outcomes for the community.

These types of innovative, holistic approaches are what will ensure that manufacturing is a viable pathway forward for cities. To this end, the National League of Cities has partnered with the Manufacturing Alliance of Communities to launch a multi-city manufacturing initiative. This new collaboration, spearheaded by Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, Michigan, and Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh will convene city leaders to identify and share innovative solutions to building a 21st century manufacturing economy. The Economic Development Administration and the White House National Economic Council are also part of this effort to help rally support at the federal level to expand manufacturing at the local level.

Whether it’s based in agriculture, digital technology or robotics, the next wave of manufacturing is looking for champions within local government. Through the work of the manufacturing initiative at NLC, we will bring solutions, information, and support to communities that are ready to take on this challenge.

About the Author: Emily Robbins is Principal Associate for Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.