SMITHFIELD — Could the COVID pandemic help bring manufacturing jobs back to Rhode Island?
That’s one intriguing possible spinoff of the logjam in international shipping resulting from the pandemic that was discussed Wednesday during World Trade Day, hosted by Bryant University. The event, which usually takes place at the Smithfield campus, was held remotely this year.
Global supply chains, the system of ships, planes and trucks that move goods around the world, were a leading topic of discussion at the conference.
“So many lives and livelihoods were devastated by the pandemic, including here in Rhode Island,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the former Rhode Island governor, said in recorded remarks. “And we know that COVID-19 severely disrupted international global supply chains. In fact, trade declined by over 20%, exceeding the declines we saw after the 2008 financial crisis. Increasing engagement with international markets is vital to our economic recovery.”
But trouble moving goods on container ships as a result of the pandemic is a major obstacle to that increased engagement, several speakers said.
The pandemic hamstrung international shipping in several ways, they said:
*Dock workers have been idled is several countries because of spikes in occurrences of the disease.
*Unexpected demand in shipping has created shortages in ships, containers, the equipment that converts the containers to truck trailers, trucks themselves and drivers to drive them.
*The ships that are carrying goods are crowding ports, forcing them to wait at anchor outside the port for space to unload their cargo.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Peter Tirschwell, who heads the Journal of Commerce, a New York City newspaper founded in 1827 that focuses on the shipping industry. “We’re living through a world-history-making, catastrophic shock to the system.”
“We need to think out of the box,” said Isabelle Vermeersch, chief executive of Centipid, a consulting firm based in Westport, Connecticut, that specializes in trade and supply-chain issues.
Vermeersch said that includes finding U.S. suppliers for goods made in Asia and bringing factories back to the United States, or, at least, North America, which presents fewer logistical hurdles to ship goods.
She also suggested looking for U.S. ports that are less crowded to bring goods into the country.
But will the challenges facing international shipping last long enough to justify relocating factories?
“The jury is very much still out on that one,” said Tirschwell. “I think it’s entirely possible it’s going to be a short-term phenomenon.”
One of the factors that caused the unexpected demands in shipping — consumers stuck at home switched their discretionary spending from travel and leisure to buying stuff that had to be shipped for home improvement projects — will probably vanish as the pandemic subsides, he said.
Then, the economic forces that made Asian suppliers attractive, including high wage rates in the United States, will rule again, he said. “Long-haul supply chains are here to stay.”