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Decline of manufacturing jobs

09/08/03 12:00AM By Timothy McQuiston
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(Host) Commentator Tim McQuiston reflects on the continuing decline of manufacturing jobs in Vermont.

(McQuiston) The news that Killington Wood Products will be closing at the end of September is unwelcome and disappointing - but perhaps not altogether surprising. Owner Bill Carris is a smart businessman and a generous person, but even those qualities can't alter the sea changes long underway in the world of international economics. He's had to make a very difficult decision.

Killington made, or makes for a short-while longer, wooden pallets. When I worked in a warehouse, we called them skids. And we frequently skidded into them with forklifts. Pallets are a cheap product that can be made almost anywhere. And now they will be made somewhere else. But 30 people will lose their jobs, and that hurts.

And it will be no solace to them to know that this is the way of the world these days. Take another case. Chesapeake Hardwoods of Hancock made hardwood veneer products, like high-end wainscoting. The international company that owned the facility decided earlier this year to move the company nearer a port and nearer to its Virginia headquarters.

This company was moved from Vermont to Virginia to save money. You see, the wood for its products doesn't come from the Green Mountains, nor does it come from the Blue Ridge Mountains for that matter. Chesapeake wanted to be closer to a port because its wood came from Asia. It doesn't make sense, perhaps, to haul the wood all the way to Vermont.

I don't completely believe it, to be honest, but the bean counters add up the numbers and they show that transportation costs are nothing compared to the cost savings on manufacturing overseas. I don't believe it because there's more to international trade than cost. Just check the stability of the world. But international corporations do believe the numbers, and so Vermont has to live with it.

The point is that Vermont businesspeople and development officials cannot run around chasing ghosts. We must all recognize that, right or wrong, Vermont and the United States are going to lose low-cost manufacturing. Give it up.

A more foreboding trend in Vermont's manufacturing scene may be evident in the troubles suffered recently by Tubbs Furniture in Brandon, a sister company of Killington Wood Products. Tubbs makes high-end furniture found in fancy catalogs. They've been in financial trouble since the national economy went bad a couple of years ago. High quality furniture sales, like other big ticket items, have fallen off. Now the company is for sale, and its future is uncertain.

This is the kind of business that Vermont should strive for: workmanship, local ownership, value-added.

Cutting your losses is a common business phrase. But that's what Vermont must also do. It may be personally difficult and politically painful to face, but Vermont's economy can't compete successfully with foreign manufacturers paying pennies per piecemeal.

This is Timothy McQuiston

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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