Sometimes it seems like politics sneaks into every part of our lives, dominating every conversation, but what impact do the actions of our elected officials have on the electronics manufacturing industry? And, more importantly, how could our politicians make our lives easier?
First, I should clarify my own position. I was born in the United Kingdom and have lived in Europe, the United States (in an election year), Mexico, and Australia. I’ve also travelled widely through Asia visiting factories and learning about this industry. I like to consider myself a global citizen with a pragmatic approach to politics.
More or less politics?
Sometimes it feels like politicians just need to get out of our way when it comes to industry. We saw in the last U.S. election campaign just how seriously Washington takes technology, with candidates courting technology leaders, some of whom seem to enjoy almost rock-star status. Most people I have talked to seem to see political interference in industry as inevitable, particularly when jobs are such a key election issue.
All in all, the common consensus seems to be ‘less is more’. Having government that allows industry to grow and thrive, protects the rights of the individual, and does not tie up companies in red tape appear to be everyone’s objectives.
Protection, not protectionism
Markets seem to thrive on healthy, fair competition, rather than on rules and tariffs. Everyone wants protection for the industry, but when the protection turns to protectionism, markets become skewed and playing fields cease to be level. Excessive use of tariffs to drive manufacturing to specific geographies rarely works in the long term, and often leads to counterproductive trade wars.
Protection is essential, whether it be legislation protecting intellectual property (IP), rules that protect from environmental damage, or regulations to protect workers. These regulations and protections need to be fair, defined, robust and, most importantly, policed. There’s no point in having regulation with no deterrent for those that ignore it.
While much of the world may not see the politics of China as ideal, one must appreciate what it has delivered in industrial growth for the country. Making an industrial plan and sticking to it for the long term isn’t easy to do when re-election is a constant concern.
The electronics industry has enough to worry about with mega-trends, new business models, and new technologies. Adding further concerns about who the next government might be, and what they might do, doesn’t make life any simpler. If you want to see testament to this just look at countries where political unrest is the norm. There are few major manufacturers rushing to manufacture in those locations.
From the government side, this is even tougher. Creating and implementing a solid plan for ten or twenty years is hard when you know that three years in, the benefits may not yet be felt and you will have to go back to the polls. There isn’t a perfect system of government, but industry likes predictability and most political systems don’t deliver that.
Training & education
Skill shortages are a constant challenge for the electronics industry. Training and educating the workforce of the future is a constant challenge, especially given we have no idea what jobs we’re training them for. When I went to school no-one had heard of app designers, and now there are more than six million of them.
Education needs to be flexible enough to teach problem solving skills and to encourage the creativity and freedom of thought that leads to innovation. What’s more, a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects is a regular request from all sectors of the industry. We are educating our children today for the jobs we think might exist tomorrow; getting this right is a huge factor in our industry’s sustainable success.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) published its International Innovation Scorecard this year, citing some of the major factors that create the right environment for innovation. You can see the full criteria and results at 2018 CTA International Innovation Scorecard. Clearly this is something that we need our politicians to understand. Categories like diversity, freedom, human capital and environment are scored, as are some more practical measures like tax friendliness, R&D investment and entrepreneurial activities. My homeland, the UK, scored all As and Bs, coming second to Finland. The USA was fifth in a ranking that rates 13 countries as Innovation Champions and another 12 as Innovation Leaders.
Innovation is the lifeblood of the tech industry. Every year new applications, new technologies and new ideas drive our industry to new heights, delivering new products into markets that, in some cases, didn’t previously exist. Being able to nurture and protect innovation is truly a measure of success for a nation as well as a solid tax generator.
So, if there are any politicians reading, what the industry needs is a firm, fair, and steady hand on the rudder, consistency, flexibility, inclusion, understanding, and an environment that nurtures, supports and rewards entrepreneurs and innovators while educating the workforce of the future
It’s a lot to ask I know, but it’s worth asking!