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Tina Casey headshot

It's Complicated: Trump Taps Dow Chemical Chief for Manufacturing Slot

By Tina Casey

News broke last week that President-elect Donald Trump tapped Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris to lead the Manufacturing Council. The move was promoted as part of Trump's campaign promise to create more manufacturing jobs in the U.S, so let's take a closer look at the tools that Liveris can apply to that job.

Layoffs, and more layoffs

At first glance, the Dow Chemical connection does not bode well for the future of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Like other manufacturers, Dow has been restructuring over the past several years, resulting in mass layoffs.

The Wall Street Journal totes up the damage in the U.S. and elsewhere:

"Dow in May 2015 said it would eliminate about 1,750 positions following a deal to separate much of its chlorine operations, and in February of this year the company said it planned to cut an additional 450 jobs," the Journal's Michael C. Bender wrote on Saturday.

"In June, Dow said it would lay off a further 2,500 employees, or around 4 percent of its global workforce, which included the planned shutdown of silicones plants in North Carolina and Japan ..."

More jobs, but not more manufacturing jobs

What Dow Chemical does bring to the job-creating table is a lengthy track record in research and development. That history was underscored during Trump's announcement last week, when Liveris took the opportunity to make an announcement of his own.

Liveris stated that Dow Chemical would open a new R&D center in Michigan that would create about 100 new jobs. Another 100 positions at the facility would be filled by existing Dow employees now working outside of the U.S.

The training and qualifications for positions in R&D are quite different than typical manufacturing jobs. So, if Trump supporters were hoping for more feet on the factory floor, the new Dow facility is not it.

The EPA and green chemistry

The choice of Liveris could also cause complications for the Trump administration due to Dow Chemical's aggressive sustainability initiatives, at least one of which involves an ongoing partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dow has been transitioning to more sustainable practices, and it assumed a leadership role in the EPA's Green Chemistry initiative. The initiative includes an awards element that provides Dow with a powerful branding angle. Last summer Dow earned its 10th Green Chemistry award, and the company used the occasion to talk up the EPA and the green chemistry trend:

"For the past 20 years, the EPA has presented 104 awards to researchers and businesses that incorporate the principles of green chemistry into chemical design, manufacture, and use," Dow said in a statement. "By recognizing groundbreaking scientific solutions to real-world environmental problems, the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge has significantly reduced the hazards associated with designing, manufacturing, and using chemicals."

Other examples of Dow's sustainability commitments include a partnership with the Nature Conservancy and participation in a municipal plastics-to-energy project.

On a broader level, the company's razor sharp focus on science and technology could lead to some awkward moments with Trump and his supporters, who have regularly attacked science and scientists.

The Smart Cities Council

Another complication is Dow Chemical's involvement with the Smart Cities initiative launched by the Obama administration in 2015.

Last September, the White House doubled the number of participating communities and pumped another $80 million into the program -- which is aimed at accelerating innovative solutions to address climate change, income inequality and public health.

In its own press release, Dow Chemical highlighted its involvement in the initiative, noting that the Obama administration "recognizes the company’s contributions to five select cities looking to accelerate urban livability, workability and sustainability."

Dow's corporate vice president and chief sustainability officer emphasized the science-based approach:

"... Dow is committed to applying our expertise in science and engineering to transition cities into more innovative, adaptable and collaborative places for a connected and resilient future."

Under the initiative, Dow is a leading partner in the Smart Cities Council, which is tasked with providing support and guidance for city planners. In particular, the Smart Cities Council will:

  • Collaborate with other Smart Cities Council members on integrated city solutions spanning science and technology

  • Enhance the Smart Cities Council’s “Readiness Guide” with increased focus on building and construction solutions for cities as they plan and implement modernization technologies and processes

Dow will focus its efforts on "encouraging a greener lifestyle for the building industry."

All of this has the potential to create jobs, including conventional factory jobs. However, the emphasis on science and technology does open up a large point of conflict with the anti-science wing of the Trump administration. Despite Dow's commitment, the Smart Cities initiative could hit some stumbling blocks after Inauguration Day.

The Manufacturing Council

That finally brings us to the Manufacturing Council. In last week's announcement, Trump apparently did not specify which Manufacturing Council he was assigning to Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical. But a good guess is that it's the Manufacturing Council under the umbrella of the Commerce Department.

That Manufacturing Council was founded in 2004 during the Bush administration and is tasked with this mission:

"... to ensure that the United States remains the preeminent destination for investment in manufacturing throughout the world."

Encouraging investment in innovation is a key element in that mission. That's right up Dow Chemical's alley, and the result could be another source of tension in the Trump administration.

Dow links sustainability to innovation:

"... Manufacturing spurs innovation, for example, in the U.S., it is responsible for nearly two-thirds of private sector R&D, but manufacturing also depends on innovation to make products more sustainable, efficient and effective. Furthermore, because R&D is linked to production, innovation follows manufacturing — where manufacturing goes, the ideas follow," the company says on its website.

And, the company hints at the growing role of automation and other forms of advanced manufacturing:
"... As globalization continues to present new opportunities and challenges, innovation in manufacturing will be crucial to achieving market competitiveness and economic development ..."

Campaign promises aside, if you're looking for a sea change from the Trump administration in terms of manufacturing initiatives, Liveris is not likely to oblige. His Dow bio includes this item:
"... [Liveris] served as Co-Chair of U.S. President Obama's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership steering committee. Liveris believes that a clear roadmap is vital for countries, regions and the global community to drive the future of advanced manufacturing .... "

That brings us back to the beginning. When companies like Dow talk about American competitiveness, they are not talking about increasing the number of conventional factory jobs available to job seekers. They are talking about new systems and processes that reduce the role of conventional jobs.

Sometimes a campaign promise really is just a campaign promise.

Image credit: Dow Chemical facility in Freeport, Texas by Roy Luck via flickr.com, creative commons license.



Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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