Boeing woes signal long path back for US factories

By Hu Weijia Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/29 20:58:21

A Boeing 737 fuselage sits on a flatcar rail car at a rail yard on April 9, 2019, in Seattle. Photo: IC

Joseph Clayton, a technician at a Boeing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina in the US, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that he routinely found debris dangerously close to the wiring beneath cockpits of 787 Dreamliners. "I've told my wife that I never plan to fly on it," he said. 

Boeing is one of US best-known manufacturers and a leading exporter of manufactured goods, working with nearly 13,000 small, medium-sized and large suppliers. The aviation giant is building its advanced model, the 787 Dreamliner, at its North Charleston campus. This plane and this factory, in some sense, stand at the apex of the US manufacturing sector. 

If this state-of-the-art plant has been plagued by shoddy production and weak oversight, it's not hard to imagine what things are like at other US factories, especially smaller ones that are more vulnerable to production problems. 

US manufacturing is not what it was a generation ago. Boeing's crisis has put the company under the spotlight, but the broader problems originated in a gradual process of change. According to a report released several years ago by Gallup, the US-based polling organization, seven in 10 US workers are "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive. Complex social problems lie behind the shoddy production and weak oversight in some US plants.

This may add to evidence that the US manufacturing sector is on the wane. Boeing's core profits fell 21 percent year-on-year in the first three months of 2019, which can't be simply attributed to the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crash only. Besides Boeing, some other US companies, such as Apple Inc, are past their peak. Should we simply blame those individual companies or look for the deep-rooted reasons behind the woes?

Big companies monopolize many intellectual property rights, which makes it easy to fend off competition and get support from the government. Some manufacturing sectors" oligopolies result in a slowdown in scientific and technological innovation, allowing companies to ignore market changes and potential risks.

Manufacturing in the US is a vital sector that represents about 60 percent of total US exports. Promising to bring back factory jobs, US President Donald Trump wants to revive the nation's manufacturing industry, but Boeing's woes suggest this won't be an easy thing. It is impossible for the US to solve the problem of its trade imbalance in the short run through methods such as trade talks with China. More patience and efforts are needed when dealing with its manufacturing industry's problems. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.


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