Small is good.
In fact, Fielding Manufacturing in Cranston believes the future is in very small, like parts that are no bigger than the width of a blade of grass.
On Monday afternoon, Steve Fielding, president of the company, told Congressman James Langevin and Neil Steinberg, president of the Rhode Island Foundation, that, in the last decade, he chose to get out of the business of manufacturing large parts because he could see he wouldn’t be able to compete with companies in China that pay a tenth of what he pays in hourly wages.
The stop at Fielding was all part of the Rhode Island: It’s All In Our Backyard campaign tour. “Going small” has enabled Fielding to reduce shipping costs while producing components for highly technical and specialized sectors of the economy.
Of particular interest to Langevin and Steinberg were green rubbery discs, not much larger than a 50-cent piece. The interior of the discs is molded to different shapes. They are used by Jeff Morgan of Brown University to grow cells in Petri dishes. The design of the discs alters the characteristics of cell growth so that they might be used in various applications, including the growth of tissues used to replace human skin, for example.
From Steinberg’s perspective, Fielding Manufacturing and Morgan are examples of what is in our own backyards and another reason for Rhode Islanders to be proud. They are real stories about Rhode Island successes.
Steinberg said the Foundation’s campaign to highlight the good of the Ocean State has gained the support of the media although, he adds, “Changing the self-image is going to take time.”
“Here it’s people, systems and technology,” Fielding said, listing his priorities.
The company employs 30 full-timers plus an additional 15 temporaries on an as-needed basis. Training is a critical function, and while he once did all his own interviewing of employees, he said he’s had better results using employment agencies.
A diploma, he said, is not a certificate of capability or even mastery of the basic “three Rs.” He has found transcripts to be of greater value in assessing job applicants.
“This is the hardest part, people go to school and they think they stop learning,” he said. “We need a better way of finding the best candidates,” he said.
Fielding said the cost of TDI (temporary disability insurance), that he put at three and four times that in other states are “killing me.” He also cited high Rhode Island and federal taxes.
It was a point that didn’t escape Langevin, although he took particular notice of Fielding’s read of the recent government shutdown and what that could do to business.
“We’re looking for a little stability from Washington,” Fielding said.
Fielding sees a pent-up demand for the specialized manufacturing his company does and he thinks there could be an up tick in the economy. But that’s dependent on what happens with the federal budget and whether leaders in Washington can pull together.
Langevin sees tax reform as “a place where the sides can come together.”
“Washington shouldn’t be taking a bow,” he said of the deal ending the recent government shutdown. “It’s unfortunate and it shouldn’t have happened.”
In remarks, as he left Fielding and headed for FarSounder, a Warwick company that manufacturers sonar equipment that projects upcoming underwater objects, Langevin said he senses people remain optimistic that government can solve its problems.
“Uncertainty is a big problem,” he said.
And, he asked, “Is it going to be budget cuts only?”
He doesn’t see across-the-board budget cuts, saying they could be especially damaging. He said he was recently talking with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who questioned how he would cope with across the board cuts and quipped, “‘Build two-thirds of a ship?’”
Later, when his office was asked what tax reforms he is considering, Langevin issued the following statement: “As a former member of the House Budget Committee, I believe that we must take a balanced approach to tax reform and the overall budget process that promotes economic certainty and U.S. economic growth. We need to eliminate tax loopholes that encourage multinationals to locate assets and economic activity overseas, and instead increase our competitiveness by incentivizing companies to grow their businesses in the United States. These changes would create new revenue streams that could be used to invest in research and development, manufacturing and workforce development at home.”