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President Trump and His Way-Back Machine

“Trump Image

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence viewing a display of American-made products on the White House lawn. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

If President Trump were a factory, it would be a wheezing, noisy operation churning out tired old ideas. His meaningless pledges to revive the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” that he mourned at his inauguration ignore the promise American manufacturing holds in the real world.

The good news is that American manufacturing output is the highest in its history. The bad news for manufacturing workers is that, leaving aside the loss of jobs going overseas, automation and technology have allowed the value of manufacturing to grow ever higher with fewer and fewer employees.

Mr. Trump should be driving government to foster more of the sorts of manufacturing jobs that are offering working Americans the wages ($26 an hour on average), benefits and middle-class mobility that manufacturing behemoths once provided.

Mr. Trump may not have known it, but half of the American-made products displayed on the White House lawn for the “Made in America Product Showcase” on Monday were built by beneficiaries of a program that faces an uncertain future, thanks to proposed cuts to the Commerce Department budget. With a budget of only $130 million, the program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, operates centers that help develop new products, plan expansions and find cost savings. It served more than 25,000 small and midsize manufacturers last year.

That’s an important focus, since all but 3,700 of the nation’s 252,000 manufacturing firms employ fewer than 500 people, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. It’s been estimated that manufacturers advised by partnership centers helped create or retain more than 142,000 jobs in the last fiscal year.

Manufacturing USA is another successful public-private venture in Mr. Trump’s budget cross hairs. Established in 2014, it is a network of manufacturing technology centers overseen by federal agencies, which speed up development of next-generation technologies and processes needed to develop products for American manufacturers. One example: strong but lightweight carbon fiber that could change how cars are made, sharply increasing fuel economy and safety.

During heavy industry’s mass layoffs in the 1980s, “job training” often meant unpaid, soul-deadening efforts to teach displaced factory workers skills they were rarely able to use. In 2014 the Department of Labor, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, along with several manufacturers, developed a tightly focused apprenticeship program to train entry-level hires into skilled production occupations from food manufacturing to metal casting. The Industrial Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship provides workers with 2,700 hours of on-the-job training and 260 hours with technical college instructors in the workplace, to learn subjects like specifications compliance, blueprint reading and mathematics, letting them move into higher-paying jobs.

Jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency are growing steadily, but Mr. Trump has been silent on efforts, begun in the 2009 stimulus package, to increase them, and the Energy Department is slated for some of the deepest budget cuts of any federal department.

Dozens more ideas like these are being generated by the government in cooperation with American industries. For “Made in America” to move from nostalgia to accomplishment, Mr. Trump should be expanding these efforts, not starving them while promising a return to the past.

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