First new fab in decades opens; CEO challenges us to “keep jobs in USA”

Tom Friedman, in the New York Times over the weekend says that China is kicking our ass in ability to create jobs in the new clean-tech field. To see whether he’s right or not I visited the opening of Bridgelux, a new company that is making solid state lighting. The real story here isn’t the technology, even though that’s pretty cool and has already won awards.

No, the big deal here is that this is the first manufacturing plant I’ve seen the tech industry open here in the US in quite some time. CEO Bill Watkins claims it’s the first new fab that’s opened in the San Francisco Bay Area in 25 years.


I get right to the point in my conversation with Bill “why do this here rather than go to China?”

He answers “the problem in America is that we have a hard time demanding jobs for America.” He challenged us to change our public stance toward the creation of jobs and echoed Friedman’s column this weekend.

So how will he get more jobs in America? He says that we need to learn from China. He explained that China takes an “industry building” approach. So what would he do?

1. Get each community to see the importance of upgrading its lights to LED, which saves a lot of power and pays for themselves within three to seven years, he says.
2. Create state bonds, that gets paid back with energy savings.
3. Make sure that at least 60% of the lights are “made in America.”

“The only question is, ‘can we do it here?’ It’s an economic war out there.”

My feedback for Bill?

He’s both nuts and right.

How is he nuts?

1. Politicians aren’t able to get their acts together to build real jobs. Why? Because politicians are too focused on their local areas and won’t vote to benefit some plant in some other state.
2. States are trying to keep basic services going, and voting on some new-fangled lights just won’t be as big an issue as keeping the fire department open or books in schools, etc.
3. The TEA party is going to keep public debate focused on government spending. Anyone who tries to suggest that spending be increased, even on something that saves energy, will get drown out.

How is he right?

1. If we want to really create the millions of jobs that we need in this country we need to take an industry-building approach.
2. Green tech is a HUGE opportunity. In lighting alone every single light we use will be replaced in the next decade or so (I’m already seeing the trend, both of my cars have LED lights now and I’m seeing more and more every day). That’s billions of lights. Someone will make those, but who?
3. The investment in industries, rather than just temporary stimulus or short-term jobs, causes a whole passalong effect in the economy. For every job inside the fab that’s created entire other companies are created to serve these fabs with materials and tools (and this fab is very small compared to the ones that have been built in China to serve other industries).

So, America, do we have what it takes or are we going to let yet another industry move to China?

GreenTech Enterprise is reporting that Philllips, Osram, and General Electric, not to mention other Asian brands coming along, have already built LED fabs in China and other “lower cost” places than America. You should read their report, which quotes US Congressional Representative John Garamendi. He says Republicans keep voting down provisions that when cities buy equipment they must buy at least some of them from US manufacturing plants.

It’s there in black and white.

Does this country have what it takes to invest in high-tech American manufacturing jobs?

So far the answer is a big fat “no.”