You can quietly lament the state of U.S. manufacturing today or you can lobby like heck in the hopes that your Congressmen and Representatives will draft and enact legislation to strengthen America's floundering industrial base.

That was the overriding theme of the recent 2010 Washington Forum, where several guest speakers made their urgent and respective calls to action. At stake, the presenters told surface finishers and suppliers in attendance, is America’s competitiveness over the long term in the wake of an era of outsourcing, manufacturing job losses, and dependency.

“We’re no longer making the things that we're buying,” said Richard McCormack, editor of Manufacturing & Technology News, in his keynote address. Even worse, he noted, when manufacturing jobs move offshore—as they have done for more than 10 years—so goes the engineering and science-related occupations that support them. “You can’t decouple manufacturing from R&D and design,” he stressed.

Throughout his presentation, McCormack peppered the audience with some eye-popping stats. He pointed to the fact that China is currently producing 10 times the amount of steel the U.S. churns out. (America also trails India, Russia, and Japan in this regard, he added.) Additionally, in 2009 China, for the first time, surpassed the U.S. in new car sales.

While this trend has an overall growth-stunting effect on the U.S. economy, McCormack said these pains have been more acutely felt in the Midwest (Michigan, Ohio, Chicago) and, now, the West. Case in point: the recent closure of 15 U.S. semi-conductor plants. “Silicon Valley is the new Midwest,” McCormack said. “Manufacturing has left California.”

The roots of this decline were planted many years ago, McCormack argues. In his 27 years covering manufacturing and technology industries, he has seen how pressure to maintain corporate profits, coupled with a ballooning trade imbalance, have combined to put U.S. manufacturing interests at a competitive disadvantage. For instance, McCormack said the North American Free Trade Agreement was supposed to be a “boon” for the U.S. economy, but the net result, he says, has been the outflow of jobs across borders. Similarly, McCormack believes a soft U.S. stance on protective trade practices by the Chinese in recent years are in stark comparison to tough measures enacted by the Reagan Administration that were designed to help U.S. auto, steel, and semiconductor manufacturers remain competitive under the Japanese threat. Ensuing economic downturns only exacerbated the pain. “Manufacturing never really came out of the 2001 recession,” McCormack said.

Fast forward to present day, where McCormack believes manufacturing policy—or lack thereof—is failing to right the course. Surprisingly, his criticism is bipartisan in nature. “Tax cuts—the Republican approach—or spending programs (Democratic) haven't worked,” he explained. “What we need is a new 'third thing'—something that focuses on production, not on consumption.”

In short, McCormack called for a “new industry policy.” To that end, he closed with this advice for the surface finishing community: “Find out whose sponsoring manufacturing bills and give them your support. Ask what you can do to help in drafting legislation. Tell your Representatives and Congressmen that if you're creating jobs, then you're growing the tax base. Finally, tell them to make it possible for you to be competitive with China and create wealth in this country.”

With less than 10% of Congressmen representing industrial districts, finishers and suppliers will need to speak clearly, respectfully—and often.