Living in a world of fallen walls

Dec. 1, 2009
RONALD Reagan, speaking at the Berlin Wall in 1987 gave a rousing speech that urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down this wall! It was a historical speech.

RONALD Reagan, speaking at the Berlin Wall in 1987 gave a rousing speech that urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

It was a historical speech. But it was directed at just one wall.

A lot of walls have come down in the two decades following Reagan's speech. Economic barriers. Language barriers. Trade barriers. Logistical barriers. Technological barriers.

The fall of one wall seemingly expedites the fall of another. And as these walls come tumbling down, their fall ushers in different ways of doing things that simply were not possible when those barriers were in place.

The implication for North American manufacturers has been profound. Truck body, trailer, and truck equipment manufacturers no longer have the market to themselves. Manufacturers from elsewhere in the world now compete with us for customers in North America. Conversely, North American companies now have additional opportunities to reach out to international markets. And according to U S Bureau of Census figures, truck and trailer manufacturers are doing just that.

International trade has become big business in major segments of our industry. Through the first 10 months of 2009, imports and exports of trucks, buses, and special-purpose vehicles totaled $20.2 billion, the Bureau of Census reports. From the perspective of America's balance of trade, this represents one of the country's bright spots. The United States as a whole incurred a $32 billion trade deficit in October alone. But manufacturers of trucks, buses, and special purpose vehicles have been building up a trade surplus throughout 2009. With all but the last two months of 2009 counted, the value of the trucks, buses, and trailers that the United States exported exceeded the value of imports by $2.3 billion

This edition of Trailer/Body Builders (our annual Fabrication Issue) has two fabrication stories that in a way are polar opposites. One story involves a Chinese trailer manufacturer whose refrigerated trailers are being produced in China and assembled in Indiana. The other story involves a U S company that has opened a plant in China to produce parts that previously were fabricated by Chinese suppliers. The two operations, however, have one thing in common: they are possible now because barriers that had been in place either have come down or have been overcome.

It's clear that we are in a global marketplace. Some of us are there because we reached out to the world. Others are there because the world reached out to our customers.

As competitors on the global stage, we have little margin for error. As this downturn in our economy should have taught us, every job is precious. We no longer have the luxury of rationalizing the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector just because they are “low pay” or that manufacturing jobs are “dirty” and “jeopardize the environment.” That kind of thinking was common at the height of the tech bubble, but we don't run across it much since unemployment reached 10%.

Despite the high jobless numbers, working in a manufacturing plant is not considered to be something that many people yearn to do. They don't even want to do some of the things that contribute to being a good production worker.

The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, sponsors of the Fabtech International show, recently sponsored a survey of 1,000 American adults. The poll found that 60% choose to hire someone to tackle household repairs and that 57% say that they have average or below-average skills when it comes to fixing things around the house.

We as a nation are getting away from the hands-on approach that fosters the growth of the type of people who function well in manufacturing plants and truck equipment shops. Not surprisingly, 73% of teenagers have little or no interest in blue-collar jobs, according to the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association.

If you are like most truck body and trailer manufacturers, your immediate personnel concern has not been the inability to find good employees. You have been far more worried about lay-offs and pay cuts. But it was not too long ago that one of the top issues facing our industry was the shortage of good technicians. With signs that the economy is beginning to recover, a labor shortage may not be too far away — especially when almost three out of every four of tomorrow's young adults want nothing to do with the basic type of work that your company must perform.

We aren't advocating hiring people before they are needed, but it may be a good time to make some long-term plans for attracting top-notch personnel. You need the best in order compete in a world where the walls have come down.

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About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.