QuickHit: Manufacturers are bouncing back, but…
In this QuickHit episode, we are talking with Chad Moutray of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Chad is the Chief Economist for NAM, and he talks with manufacturers across the U.S. every day, to understand their issues and informs them of the the overall economic landscape. NAM has about 14,000 members that includes state manufacturing associations. Tony Nash discussed with Moutray the state of manufacturing especially in this time of the pandemic. What are they doing, thinking, and what are their plans?
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TN: Can you walk us through some of the manufacturing firms that you’ve been interacting with and how do they’ve come to understand the environment? What have they been thinking about? What have their priorities been? Because I think it’s been confusing for everybody. But from a manufacturing perspective, what have you been seeing?
CM: I’ll go through a couple of things here. Number one, just that dearth of data that we had early on, everyone was asking me, “What is the current capacity utilization for manufacturing right now in the State of Pennsylvania?” I don’t know. How would I know, right?
There was a lack of information early on, and the abruptness and the severity of this downturn just caught a lot of people [off guard]. The numbers are so heartbreaking and jaw-dropping. We’re starting to get a sense now of what those numbers really are, and the drastic-ness of these figures in terms of being the worst ever, or the worst since the Great Recession. But there was a lack of information early on that really just caught people by surprise.
Companies don’t know what to do. This is not just a business conversation. It’s also a life and death conversation. Do you keep operating? Do you not keep operating? Are you operating in a state where you’re forced to close? Are you deemed essential? A lot of those things early on really dominated manufacturers’ time in terms of whether to operate, what happens if someone gets sick in your facility? What do you do? Do you close everything down? There was a scramble early on just to figure out operationally “What am I doing?”.
It moved from there to the conversation about PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, masks or ventilators or whatever else.
One thing that really has dominated that manufacturing conversation over the last month has been the National Association of Manufacturers work with the administration [to understand] whether it’s FEMA or DOD or the Vice President’s Office to say, “Okay. What do we need in order for everything to come back to normal? How many masks do we need? How many ventilators do we need?” And then helping to identify manufacturers that can produce that. That really has dominated a lot of time for the NAM over the last month or so–getting a handle on what are those needs.
That has gravitated into the new normal. Everyone is [asking] what does manufacturing look like three months from now, six months from now, a year from now? How do you get back to a sense of normal, whether there’s a vaccine or not a vaccine?
Answering those questions will dominate much of my time from a research perspective. We asked on a survey “Are you re-engineering in your process to have social distancing in mind,” or “Are you going to let people work from home?” That’s not always possible on the shop floor. But in some cases it may be, right? So those types of questions are first and foremost.
We’re talking to a series of tire manufacturers. They have a huge retail operation and retail is just going to change dramatically. They not only look at the manufacturing side, but how retail is going to change, and then how they can react. It shows you just how dynamic this particular moment in time is in terms of dramatically changing the sector.
TN: I know you’re still in the process of doing your research but what’s your feeling now? Do you get the sense that people want to get back to kind of a normal-ish environment quickly? I know “there” is relative. But do you think there’s a desire to get back and get relatively normal business activity back say in Q2 or Q3? Do you get the sense that it’s going to be longer? What’s the drag? How long will this drag effect impact companies and impact manufacturers?
CM: I do think that we’ve passed the worst of it. I do think that in that late March, early April, that’s when things just really hit bottom. You’ve started to see a sense, especially from some of the more recent data, that things, while they’re still bad, are not as bad as they were several weeks ago. I do get a sense that you’re starting to see that bounce back in the marketplace, which is good.
In general, there is what we’ll call “quarantine fatigue” not just for consumers but for businesses as well. There is a sense that activity is going to start resuming.
The difference here is that yes people are going to come back to it but there’s still going to be some hesitance there. We don’t have a vaccine. So coming back to work is not the same as it was before. That’s true at the NAM, that’s true in every workplace in the country. People’s willingness to go out to restaurants and bars and go to Disney World has all changed a little bit.
I do think that we are bouncing back already. But in this new environment, there is still a little bit of hesitance about getting out in crowds and the workplace change. Yes, I can go back to the office maybe, but am I going to? Am I going to continue working from home? How much separation is there for me between me and my co-worker on the shop floor? We’ve already started to see that rebound. But it’s in a different place than it was two months ago.
TN: A lot of questions. Let me shift gears a little bit and ask you about trade. With COVID-19 and initially when this was hitting China hard, we saw a lot of supply chains stall out and slow down. We’ve been talking about the regionalization of supply chains for a few years at Complete Intelligence. Is that something that you’re seeing, and I know you’re not necessarily advocating a position. So I don’t expect you to be doing that. But are you seeing that happen or is that concept not seeing a lot of traction on yet?
CM: We were starting to see people re-evaluating their supply chains as a result of the Trade War. Last year, we were seeing a lot of that. It doesn’t mean all of it’s coming back to the U.S., but it certainly means production might be moving out of China and other places. This exacerbates that even more. There’s been this realization that we can’t depend on one country and one source to get all of our stuff anymore given the extremeness of this disaster economically.
People are going to be re-evaluating the supply chain. From the NAM point of view, we want as much of that to come back to the U.S. as possible so we’ll be advocating policies on on-shoring. Look for that coming from us. But the reality is, companies are going to locate where they locate. There’s a lot of reasons why companies locate wherever they do, and it’s where the customers are, that’s where their other suppliers are, that’s where the intelligence is. And some of it’s going to go to Mexico, or to the rest of Southeast Asia. There is definitely this understanding that we’ve got to re-evaluate that supply chain process in terms of who we’re buying from, making sure there’s duplication, and I think that’s a conversation that every firm is having right now.
TN: Very good. Chad, thank you so much for your time. I’d love to have you back in a few months to revisit some of these questions. As the unknowns dissipate, it’ll be very interesting to to look back and see what people did right, what mistakes people can avoid next time this happens.