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The Trans-Pacific Partnership (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Skilled Labor)

By now we are all well versed in the debate over the TPP. Or, maybe not, seeing as the text of the bill is still classified and has yet to be made public. However, we do understand that the side pushing for approval says that the agreement will open a more robust trade system with many emerging economies giving American manufacturers more consumers for their goods driving the need to create jobs to keep up with demand. The opposition states that not only will it widen the overall trade deficit that has been a reality since the introduction of NAFTA, but such blanket authority could open dangerous levels of deregulation that would undermine much of the progress made since the financial collapse and recession of 08-09.

President Obama kicked off the final push to gain support for the TPP by speaking on its benefits at Nike’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon last Friday. This seems to be a swing and a miss for the President in terms of winning any support from the average American worker. Nike, a company viewed by many as a leader in the field of outsourcing American jobs, would be the last place to gain support for such an initiative from anyone, with the exception of fortune 500 companies and their leadership.

TPP supporters have been looking to fast-track the measure to allow for a straight up and down vote and forego any amendments being attached. The opposition wants time to discuss the agreement further and add provisions to curtail issues such as currency manipulation and human trafficking. These additions would be added in an attempt to level the playing field and assure that all of the countries involved have the same set of rules with regards to traded industry.

Now that the fast-tracking of this issue has been approved after a scramble to gain support by the White House, the TPP looks to become the next trade agreement we will enter into. Yet, in all honesty, the only things any of us can know for sure about any such policy is what has occurred historically. So what have we gained since the introduction of NAFTA, the last far-reaching trade agreement? A manufacturing trade deficit of approximately $460 billion, according to the Brookings Institute, an ever shrinking middle class, and the loss of over 11 million manufacturing jobs since 1996. Time will tell if this simply becomes another lopsided agreement benefiting the profits of our largest corporations while only creating sub-par jobs outside of our country or, is the genesis of 21st century jobs as has been touted. Either way, these figures do not bode well for the interests of the American worker, and offer only what traditionally has been trade down a one-way street.

Trade agreements however, are necessary for a global economy to exist, many would even argue that they are also necessary for human rights to take hold in developing countries due to the regulation introduced in labor practices. Although, how do you support the fight for human rights through outsourcing when many companies simply use the offshore labor achieved through these agreements as cheap sweatshop work to make their products at third world costs and sell them in the much wealthier, first world economies?

Nike, for example, has been playing defense with regards to their manufacturing practices for some time. Last year Nike showed profits over $12 billion, with most of their products being produced by employees making less than $4 per day according to a National Journal article titled: Why is Obama Visiting Nike to Promote His Trade Bill. This also comes on the heels of a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission proclaiming that Nike only makes a few items pertaining to their Air-Sole cushions in the U.S., a fact also pointed out in the National Journal piece.

This shift in production in America is where we can take advantage of global trade and retake the frontline in the manufacturing and skilled labor markets. With the basic manufacturing tasks of yesterday being transported to developing countries in an attempt to keep costs to a minimum, we find ourselves in a dire situation, evolve or be left behind. The fact of the matter is that the workforce in this country shouldn’t be gluing high-tops together on an assembly line. While this is not a declaration of superiority, it is a call to the advanced nature of our economy. We have to learn new skills to compete, period. This does not mean that we all have to run out to business school or gain a liberal-arts degree only to find ourselves in colossal debt with no chance for a career at the end. No, this is a time when we need to set ourselves apart by going back to the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

At a point when emphasis was placed on applied learning and skills such as the STEM initiative, we went from the earth to the moon in a decade. This trade agreement could be the catalyst that finally destroys the traditional manufacturing industry in this country, and I am okay with that. Its destruction could ultimately lead to a new and exciting level of skilled labor practices in our industrial market. We should be set apart, not only by how hard we work, but by the technological level at which we work.

With the advanced manufacturing practices of today in such fields as; machining, robotics, mechanical/industrial design, and other applied skill sets, we must find a way to make our workforce indispensable as technological leaders. If the TPP increases the outsourcing of traditional manufacturing jobs, the only way to prosper is to make sure there is absolutely no skills gap in our midst.

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