Are We Learning Anything from China?
China welcomed Tesla’s EV manufacturing innovation and used it to build an EV supply chain. Where is America investing?
By Raye Ward
Del Valle, Texas, has made a bid for Tesla’s $1 billion electric truck Gigafactory, waiving some $46 million in property taxes over 10 years, with the county kicking in an additional $14 million.
Can you help us get an HEB?— Question from a Del Valle resident to Tesla representatives
The thing about economic development is that, in Texas at least, communities bid with the property taxes that pay for our public health and our kids’ educations. Del Valle, a stone’s throw from Austin and its Bergstrom International Airport, is chronically underserved. It has neither a permanent medical clinic nor a hospital. At a recent community meeting, a school board official’s question to Tesla representatives was, “Can you help us get an HEB?,” HEB being the the state’s flagship grocery store.
Innovation, riding the crest of Chinese investment
Any relationship is a risk. Not too long ago Tesla, in need of cash, made a similar gamble with China. Tesla agreed to pay $323 million a year in taxes, accept a $1.6 billion state loan, and source 30% of its parts locally (100% by the end 2020) to open a Gigafactory in Shanghai, the first foreign automobile company not required to share profits and technology with a local company.
The deal paid off handsomely. Tesla’s second-quarter earnings moved into the black, the stock’s value quadrupled to $1,790 per share, and Elon Musk’s personal wealth pushed past Warren Buffet’s.
But then Tesla fit neatly into the guiding principle of China’s “Made in China 2025” strategy: “innovation-driven, quality first, green development, structural optimization, and talent-based.” And since Tesla sources parts locally, China builds an in-country supply chain for manufacturing electric vehicles.
Looking for a mask? All roads lead to China
If you’re wondering why American doctors are re-using their masks, read Keith Bradsher’s reporting in The New York Times. In three years’ time, China has dominated the market in medical devices and supplies by investing heavily in companies that make medical equipment and supplies and requiring hospitals to source locally. Bradsher, chief of the Times‘ Shanghai bureau, quotes an LA-based entrepreneur who decided to manufacture masks and hand sanitizer, only to discover the machines that make masks and the plastic bottles that dispense hand sanitizer are only made in China.
Investing in the future, locally
The starting salary for an entry level Del Valle Gigafactory worker with a high school diploma would be $36,000, about 55% of a living wage in Austin. But those jobs could conceivably propel workers into more skilled, advanced manufacturing roles with salaries that start at double that figure. The market is hungry for those skills. In the next 10 years, Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute estimate U.S. manufacturers will be short some 2 million skilled manufacturing workers.
To fill the pipeline, local Austin-based manufacturers and the Army Future Command are collaborating with the Austin Community College to build an advanced manufacturing incubator that would offer hands-on experience and apprenticeships. As an EV manufacturer, Tesla could play a major role in mentoring the community in those very sectors that matter so much to the Chinese government: “innovation-driven, quality first, green development, structural optimization, talent-based” manufacturing.
Some signs of investment at the federal level
The larger question is whether we are learning anything from the country we love to hate. There are signs the federal government recognizes the need for large-scale investment in the innovation industries. But we remain hampered by election cycles and short-term thinking.
Take semiconductors, technology that beats at the heart of all things digital. The U.S. semiconductor supply chain is complex and global. Fabrication and assembly are mostly off shored. A bipartisan bill proposed this month would offer matching grants to chip manufacturers willing to build domestic fabs, an investment of some 20 billion for a state-of-the-art facility. Two of the bill’s sponsors are incumbent Texas’ politicians, both ranking members in their respective chambers and both up for re-election this year. In the Senate, John Cornyn (R-TX) is working with Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee; in the House, Michael McCaul (R-TX) is working with Doris Matsui (D-CA). China meanwhile, seeing the writing on the wall, is investing huge sums in building domestic semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. The jury is out on how feasible this is, but then again, China is a country with a history of moving mountains.
Texas and Austin, of course, were once the site of the semiconductor consortium SEMATECH at a time when Japan threatened American dominance in that seminal industry. In the end, the state withdrew funding, SEMATECH moved north and is no more. So much for long-term vision.
In this mercurial world, things can always crumble. Del Valle’s main competition is Tulsa, Okla., a city grappling with racial crimes and a governor with Covid-19. Tesla is known for following the money, so neither of these could be a deterrent. But Texas has always been a destination for risk-takers. Hopefully we’ll take the right risks, Del Valle will finally get its HEB, and the American industries of the future will get some funding.