The High Road Commons for Industrial Innovation and Economic Transition

How can we harness American manufacturing to speed the recovery of regional and local economies that have been hurt by globalization, deindustrialization, and other economic shocks over the past four decades? One strategy would be to establish a “high road commons”—a public commonwealth that would foster the transition to economic prosperity of left-behind Rustbelt rural communities and urban communities alike.

There are many examples of national, state, and local initiatives that support the revitalization of manufacturing communities, through innovation in advanced manufacturing, business retention and the development of industrial ecosystems, innovative workforce education and training approaches, and capital investment. The high road commons model would seek to expand real world successes such as Pittsburgh’s Steel Valley Authority, which has used Early Warning and Layoff Aversion to save 23,000 jobs; Chicago’s Manufacturing Renaissance, which has united 90 companies and schools to get disadvantaged youth into manufacturing careers; and a pension-fund-driven restructuring of two earth-friendly bus manufacturers into New Flyer Industries, saving 3,500 mostly union jobs.

National High Road Recovery Model The National High Road Model for Manufacturing and Economic Recovery (see Figure 1) recognizes the importance of advancing national economic policies to enable a strong American manufacturing base, which include (i) leveling the playing field for U.S. manufacturers in global markets, and (ii) creating and expanding the demand for U.S. made goods. These policies in turn support the creation of a strong high road commons as key to reinvigorating manufacturing linked to the economic recovery of struggling American industrial communities. The notion of commons is rooted in the historical practice of people in communities benefitting from the common use of shared lands in a town where their animals would graze. The high road commons marries the capabilities of the nation’s industrial commons , with a focus on growing a globally competitive advanced manufacturing sector, with those of the economic transition commons , which enables the economic adjustment of struggling communities, businesses, and workers. It refers to the resources and capacities that foster advanced manufacturing and revitalize industrial communities.

National Economic Policies address global marketplace challenges that ultimately influence the ability to build a strong industrial commons that supports successful manufacturing-driven economic recovery.

  • “Level the playing field” policies increase the competitiveness of U.S. companies in global markets. They include fair trade agreements; enforceable labor and environmental standards; enforcement of unfair trade practices; action against currency overvaluations; and tax and financial reforms to reduce corporate incentives to move production offshore.

  • Demand creation policies expand the size of domestic markets for manufactured goods including government investments to address major national needs (e.g., infrastructure, clean energy, affordable housing). The latter refers to domestic content requirements in government procurement.

Industrial Commons refers to the capabilities, activities, and resources available in the public, private, and civil sectors, to strengthen innovation and advanced manufacturing capacity and competitiveness. This infrastructure provides the know-how, process development skills, scientific research and engineering capabilities, and suppliers that advanced manufacturers need to grow. Key elements of modern industrial commons include collaborative ecosystems of manufacturers and supporting services and institutions, a labor pool of well-educated and training workers, and access to capital, especially to support the research, development and commercialization of advanced manufacturing technologies.

Economic Transition Commons includes a diversity of economic and workforce development capabilities, activities, and resources in the public, private and civil sectors, to support the economic adjustment and transition of communities, businesses and workers suffering from economic distress.

  • Economic adjustment and transition assistance programs and resources foster economic recovery and growth, and strengthen the competitiveness of regional and local industries. These include economic development activities, such as economic assessment and strategic planning; public works and infrastructure investments; technical assistance for local economic development practitioners; business attraction and retention (including early warning and layoff aversion); industrial cluster development; support for small and mid-sized manufacturers; supply chain development and capital resources.

  • Workforce adjustment and transition programs help workers adjust to the impacts of economic dislocations, offering job training and assistance (job search, job placement and relocation) services. Their purpose is to enable displaced workers to obtain the skills and assistance needed to retain or obtain family-sustaining jobs in their communities.

  • Safety-net protections provide an economic floor for dislocated workers and their families. It includes income maintenance, retirement security, health care security and other protections for workers who have experienced economic dislocation. The purpose is to ensure that vulnerable and dislocated workers have sufficient resources to support themselves especially as they transition to new job opportunities, or in the case of older workers, enable them to retire with dignity.

High Road Commons connects the capabilities, resources and services of the industrial commons, to those of the transition commons, to enable America’s economically distressed communities, struggling businesses, and dislocated workers to benefit from the revitalization of manufacturing, and successfully transition to more economically competitive and prosperous activities in the marketplace. Although a strong industrial commons may support the retention and growth of globally competitive, advanced manufacturing industries in the United States, the resulting gains do not automatically go to economically distressed communities, or help vulnerable and displaced workers. The marriage of the industrial and transition commons ensures these benefits are applied to helping economically struggling communities and workers.

Some of the main characteristics of the high road commons includes emphases on manufacturing as key to revitalizing struggling industrial communities; the retention, restoration, and creation of high-wage, high value family supporting jobs; bottom-up and collaborative approaches involving governmental, private sector and civil society stakeholders; the linkage of workforce and economic development objectives and initiatives; and, social inclusion. Its principal components include:

Stakeholder driven economic development planning, assessment and implementation.

  • A strong network of collaborative innovation ecosystems, inclusive of regional industrial cluster development partnerships or consortia.

  • Sustained federal, state and private sector investments in research and technology development that support innovation and applications in advanced manufacturing.

  • Technical assistance and support for small and mid-sized manufacturers and supplier chains.

  • Well-resourced and accessible capital strategies and financing options.

  • A robust system of workforce education, training and certification, to enable young people and workers seeking employment to qualify for high-value jobs in manufacturing and emerging industries, while building a high-skilled workforce to meet the needs of those sectors.

  • Specific goals and priorities around inclusion of women and people of color embedded throughout workforce and economic development.

  • A comprehensive, well-resourced safety-net and system of social protections, to mitigate the hardships and provide supports for workers adjusting to economic shocks.

  • Investment in infrastructure and public works to drive demand and attract new businesses.


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