In times like these, with unemployment at its highest rate in more than a quarter century, President Obama's announcement that the White House will hold a jobs summit in December is welcome news. The nation's focus must be on the critical issue of job creation.
A topic that should be high on the agenda at the jobs summit is what lawmakers can do to prevent jobs created by new U.S. policies and taxpayer investments from going overseas, which is exactly what is happening with thousands of new manufacturing jobs in the burgeoning clean energy economy. Recent news that a 36,000-acre wind farm development in West Texas will use imported wind turbines and create more jobs in China than in America was the latest in a string of setbacks to U.S. job creation efforts. We need to turn that ship around and bring those jobs back to U.S. shores right now.
As cities, states, and the federal government enact measures to slow global warming and achieve energy independence, manufacturing jobs are being created to produce the component parts of renewable energy systems like solar panels and wind turbines.
The problem is that -- unlike home weatherization or green construction, which by their nature must happen locally -- the manufacture of clean energy systems can take place anywhere in the world. Indeed, green manufacturing jobs are already going overseas, and have been for some time. Seventy percent of America's renewable energy systems and components are manufactured abroad. Our European and Asian counterparts -- China in particular -- are taking steps to capture these jobs, while U.S. manufacturing states are suffering unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression.
Unfortunately, this trend has plagued American manufacturing for decades, which is a shame because right now we need every job we can get. Manufacturing jobs tend to pay well and have traditionally been the ticket to the middle class for millions of American families. It's also a shame because when clean energy manufacturing facilities are located abroad, America's clean energy research and development capacity suffers. When manufacturing engineers are in China and R&D engineers are in Silicon Valley, opportunities for collaboration and innovation are severely diminished, hurting the competitive position of U.S. companies in the global clean energy economy.
The President and Congress must take action now to stem the flow of clean energy manufacturing jobs overseas for both economic and national security reasons. Absent clear and deliberate policies to keep green manufacturing jobs here, the market will do is what it has done in the past: continue to send good manufacturing jobs overseas, leaving U.S. workers on the sidelines collecting unemployment checks and leaving our nation's security to whims of other nations.
The first thing the federal government can do is adopt policies that increase demand for clean energy. That means passing a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill that includes a cap on carbon, a national renewable energy standard, and national building and appliance energy efficiency standards.
Then, just as China is doing, Congress must offer incentives to persuade clean energy manufacturing companies to set up shop in the U.S. so we can meet heightened demand for clean energy with a homegrown supply. This practice is commonplace in other parts of the world and is even employed by U.S. states competing against each other to attract or keep companies in their locales.
The next critical step is to put in place a local content requirement, also called a "Buy American" policy, that either requires or gives preference to companies that use a certain percentage of components that are manufactured in the United States, whenever there are taxpayer dollars involved. Local content requirements have proven extremely successful at creating and retaining manufacturing jobs, despite the free trade purists who deride them.
We should also consider adjusting U.S. trade policies so that when we do adopt national clean energy and climate policies, our trade policies don't effectively give preference to products that are produced in countries with lower environmental standards.
Finally, we should help traditional U.S. manufacturers retool to enter the clean energy economy. Former auto parts and construction equipment manufacturers could easily transition to become manufacturers of electric vehicle parts, wind turbine components, and other clean energy systems and parts. A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio would establish a revolving loan fund to help small and mid-sized manufacturers retool their factories to produce clean technologies. It would also increase support for Manufacturing Extension Partnerships (MEPs) that link smaller manufacturers to supply chains and markets for their goods. Similar provisions were already passed by the House as part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act; now the Senate must do its part to help manufacturers access the emerging clean energy marketplace.
As the U.S. economy struggles to emerge from prolonged recession and unemployment rates continue to skyrocket, President Obama and Congress can ill afford to let more good jobs flee our country. If this issue goes unaddressed at the upcoming White House jobs summit, more American families will suffer.
The ship is sailing away, but it's not too late to bring it back to port.
Phil Angelides is the Chairman of the Board of the Apollo Alliance and the former Treasurer of the State of California.