Sen. Anderson: Oregon needs a manufacturing boost

By Sen. Dick Anderson and Jim Fitzhenry

In nearly every corner of Oregon, manufacturers provide living-wage jobs while innovating constantly to increase sustainability. They make wine and cheese, paper and wood products. They turn recycled plastic into broadband conduit and garbage into paper products. They make semiconductors, too.

The success of the manufacturing sector has made Oregon a national outlier. Manufacturing employment increased by 14% between 1969 and 2019 even as manufacturing jobs nationwide declined by 34%, according to research conducted by ECONorthwest. That’s a good thing, as median earnings for full-time manufacturing employees exceed those of workers in other industries by 17%, a premium that exists across racial and ethnic categories. In total, manufacturing contributes $33 billion to Oregon’s gross domestic product annually. A 10% increase in manufacturing output would generate an additional $800 million in state and local government revenue.

But will such growth happen? It’s tempting to assume that manufacturing will continue to thrive in Oregon simply because it has in the past. But growth isn’t guaranteed. In fact, Oregon could rapidly lose the gains the state has seen over the past 40 years unless state lawmakers listen more carefully to employers and seek to create the conditions they need to thrive.

Employers featured in Oregon Business & Industry’s recent Manufacturing and Innovation Roadshow pointed time and again to a few problems that make growing businesses in Oregon difficult.

The first involves Oregon’s chronic shortage of buildable industrial land. Fixing this problem will not require a drastic reconsideration of Oregon’s established land-use system. Rather, it will require a bipartisan, good-faith effort to better balance the need to preserve farms and forests with the need to provide land for other important uses, including manufacturing.

The second problem involves Oregon’s regulatory climate. By and large, the manufacturers who participated in the Roadshow praised the responsiveness of city and county governments. At the same time, almost all noted the difficulty of dealing with state agencies. Problems include the siloed and often oppositional nature of agency rulemaking and the difficulty of obtaining air and water permits. Oregon should seek to create clear and consistent policies and help employers comply with them.

Finally, the Legislature should consider incentives that align with the needs of manufacturers and maintain Oregon’s competitiveness. Manufacturers spend heavily on innovation, including the adoption of technologies and processes to operate more sustainably. For many, meanwhile, providing child care for employees would be feasible with the right incentives.

Oregon lawmakers could say “no” to such changes, and various groups will urge them to do just that. But this would have costs, including the loss of lucrative jobs and Oregon’s hard-won status as a leader in innovation, manufacturing, and sustainable approaches. This would happen, ironically, just as the country is waking up to the need to grow domestic manufacturing capacity.

Instead, Oregon should support the kind of innovation and commitment to sustainability the Manufacturing Roadshow spotlighted in August. In Woodburn, for example, Cascade Poly Pipe and Conduit transforms recycled plastic into conduit used in power and broadband projects. And in Toledo, Georgia Pacific’s Juno facility extracts paper fiber from household trash, a technology that soon will be available on a commercial scale.

Helping manufacturers innovate, thrive and provide living-wage jobs should not be a partisan issue. That’s why we’d like to urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to that end.

Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, represents District 5 in the Oregon Legislature and participated in this summer’s Manufacturing and Innovation Roadshow. Jim Fitzhenry owns two manufacturing companies in Portland and chairs the Manufacturing Council of Oregon, an initiative of Oregon Business & Industry.

Disclaimer: Articles featured on Oregon Report are the creation, responsibility and opinion of the authoring individual or organization which is featured at the top of every article.