Election, tariffs and regional labor shortages affect expectations among national distributor’s customers, survey finds

lections always call upon business leaders to consider whether the U.S. economy drives the results or vice versa. “As with any debate, there is perception and then there is reality,” say the authors of a report from Ryerson, based on a survey it conducted of its customers.

Among the questions posed to customers for “The Metal Perspective” was whether they believed the presidential election would affect business. A thin majority (51 percent) said it will depend on the outcome.

For those that are anticipating an impact, regardless of the outcome, the sentiment wasn’t overly positive. Roughly 23 percent believe that election years are typically weaker for their business, while only 6 percent believe they result in stronger conditions.

But the political landscape isn’t the only focus for survey respondents. Roughly 67 percent anticipate tariffs will have some type of influence on business this year. Historically low unemployment rates continue to create stumbling blocks to hiring skilled labor for 54 percent of respondents. More than a quarter of respondents are watching such trends as machine learning/artificial intelligence and 3D printing for how they may affect their operations.

Overall, 42 percent of respondents anticipated stronger business conditions in 2020 compared with 2019; another 26 percent expected no change.

Ryerson’s survey broke down responses into three primary customer segments.

Manufacturers: Roughly 43 percent of manufacturers believed 2020 will be stronger than 2019. This is only marginally lower than those that believed the same headed into 2019 (44 percent). The driving factors behind this anticipated strength were improved forecast in customer demand (75 percent) and new opportunities in the market (58 percent).

Nearly the same number of respondents (42 percent) believed conditions will either weaken or remain unchanged. The primary reason cited by these respondents was the economy (50 percent) followed by a weaker demand forecast (36 percent). A quarter of respondents cited rising business costs as a big concern.

Fabricators: This group expressed greater optimism about strength (41 percent in 2020) compared with last year (29 percent). They point to a strong forecast in customer demand (59 percent) and new opportunities in the market (51 percent) as primary reasons for that outlook.

On the flip side, 40 percent of fabricators responding to the survey anticipated either weaker or unchanged conditions, with 19 percent uncertain about what they might expect. The contributing factors included economic conditions (39 percent), a struggle to find skilled labor (36 percent), and a weaker forecast for demand (31 percent).

Machine shops: Forty-two percent of machine shops taking the Ryerson survey said they expect stronger business conditions this year, compared with last year’s 19 percent. Stronger customer demand (64 percent) was the No. 1 factor cited. These respondents also were positive about improving economic conditions (57 percent) and new opportunities in the market (29 percent).

Thirty-nine percent of machine shops said conditions would not change or become weaker. Many pointed to lower customer demand (54 percent) and rising costs (46 percent) as causes for their tempered expectations.

Current unemployment rate
Has the current unemployment rate had an impact on your ability to hire skilled labor?
Tariffs in 2020
Roughly 67 percent of all respondents said the Section 232 tariffs—enacted in March 2018 and which impose a 25 percent duty on steel imports and a 10 percent duty on aluminum imports—will continue to affect their businesses this year. This compares with the 82 percent who anticipated effects from the tariffs last year. Couple this with the uncertainty associated with the political landscape in the wake of the election, and one sees how this weighs on business planning efforts for the next three quarters.

the struggle with finding skilled labor is a primary reason for a weaker 2020 forecast.
the metal perspective
Limited by labor
The national unemployment rate hovered around historic lows throughout 2019, concluding the year with a 3.5 percent reading in December. With that in mind, 54 percent of respondents believed that the current rate has limited their ability to hire skilled labor. This is only slightly lower than those who believed the same headed into 2019 (56 percent). Further, of those that forecast 2020 business conditions would be weaker or unchanged compared with 2019, 17 percent cited the struggle with finding skilled labor as a primary reason.

Regionally, respondents in the South (33 percent) and Midwest (32 percent) were highest among those citing unemployment rates as having an impact on their ability to hire skilled labor; only 22 percent in the West and 10 percent in Northeast cited the same cause.

In Canada, labor was a factor for 3 percent of respondents.

Macro trends
Ryerson asked respondents to take a forward-looking view of the market beyond 2020, asking which emerging macro trends in business and manufacturing that they are watching most closely?

Foremost on the mind for 34 percent of all respondents is lean manufacturing. It was the No. 1 response among manufacturers, fabricators and machine shops alike. Inventory technologies, like bar-code scanning, ranked highly for 25 percent of manufacturers and for 15 percent of fabricators.

Activities such as additive manufacturing, machine learning and artificial intelligence are garnering plenty of headlines in general, yet aren’t of primary importance among the survey respondents just yet.

Expected tariffs impacts
expected tariffs impacts
Among the more notable write-ins from respondents were an acceptance of a digital marketplace for metals, green technologies and carbon-neutral manufacturing. Also noted by multiple respondents was the role of trade schools, which speaks to the difficulties with finding skilled labor.

Frank Williams, general manager of e-commerce, marketing and communication for Ryerson says, “The annual survey is a piece we produce to help answer the common question that our customers have, about what other companies are saying about their own business. With the variety of customers, end markets and geographies we serve, we think it is a good representation of what our customers are thinking.”

Ryerson, Chicago, 855/793-7766,