With the economy front and center in the Presidential campaign, it's no surprise that attention is centering, at least in part, on key Midwestern states like Ohio and Michigan. There, concerns over jobs and the manufacturing economy have made for grueling battles but given neither party a lasting foothold. Conventional wisdom has it that the parties' positions were staked out long ago, with the Republicans favoring free trade as a boon to economic growth and Democrats favoring policies to keep, and expand, jobs at home.
Now meet Neal Duiker, a 28-year-old law student from Toledo, Ohio, who grew up in a blue-collar town southwest of Cleveland. He sees the state's manufacturing industry suffering and believes job training is critical to improving Ohio's economy. "Nothing's going to help people more than giving them better skills," Duiker says. His words echo those of Frankie Coleman, 58, of Columbus, who put herself through school working at a paint plant and assembling Jeep parts and retired after 30 years helping workers retrain for new careers. "What we don't have are the resources to train the workforce for higher-end jobs," Coleman says.
But while Coleman spoke in Denver, where she traveled as an Ohio delegate for Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Duiker is a GOP delegate in St. Paul, Minn., where the Republican Party is scheduled to nominate Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the Presidency on Sept. 4. Others attending the two conventions from the Buckeye State voiced similar concerns. If they are any guide, the fight over Midwestern jobs may be more complex than campaign rhetoric suggests.
The complications extend to the numbers economists use to measure a state's health. For one thing, it's hard to pin down just how the manufacturing industry—long the backbone of Ohio's economy—is really faring. Domestic automakers are hurting but beginning to retool to build more efficient vehicles; General Motors (GM) recently announced it would invest $350 million to upgrade its sprawling Lordstown factory to build a new fuel-efficient car, the Chevrolet Cruze. Foreign automakers with plants in the state are doing better—and some manufacturers are actually benefiting from the weak dollar, which makes U.S. goods more attractive overseas.
However, manufacturing jobs have declined 16.8% from 2001 through 2006, says Ned Hill, vice-president for economic development at Cleveland State University. Ohio's overall unemployment rate, meanwhile, hit 7.2% in July, its highest level in 15 years. That compares with the U.S. jobless rate of 5.7%.
But Hill chalks up the loss of manufacturing jobs to automation and increased efficiency, and says those jobs that remain rely on higher-level skills in design, engineering, and management—jobs like one held by Duiker's brother, who spends part of his time managing computerized inventory at a Cleveland warehouse.
Hill also points to federal figures suggesting that manufacturing companies are doing reasonably well in a tough economy. The value of the goods they produce—the sector's gross domestic product—rose 5.9% from 2001 through 2007, not far behind the 6.9% growth for the rest of the state's economy.
The bottom line, Hill says: Manufacturing workers may feel like they've missed out on the benefits, but "a lot of the nonmanufacturing employment in the state is driven [by] and linked to manufacturing."
Other economists call the GDP measure crude, in part because it doesn't account for products assembled in Ohio—and thus included in the state's GDP—that likely include components made overseas. That probably skews the sector's production figures artificially high, says Susan Helper, an economist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
At the same time, those unable to get work in manufacturing probably wind up in lower-paying service jobs, Helper says. Coleman notes that neighbors and relatives laid off from local plants have lost their cars and homes as a result. "You used to make $25 to $30 an hour, and the only thing available to you now is $8 to $9 an hour," she says.
While Coleman and Duiker have broadly similar views on Ohio's job woes and how to solve them, their differences are telling. Coleman, the Democrat, traces the state's woes to a paucity of federal aid for retraining starting more than two decades ago. Duiker, the Republican, wants to retrain workers and foster jobs, but not with "bloated government programs."
But sorting out those differences, after all, is what elections are for.