Business owners say the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows promise

GRANITE FALLS — Anna Schoolcraft likes her commute.

It takes her about three minutes driving in her red Corvette Stingray to get to her job at Cobalt Enterprises, a machine shop that makes parts for aerospace companies.

Nearly all of the company’s 98 workers live within 10 miles of the shop.

That’s by design, says Cobalt Vice President Paul Clark. He runs the company with its founder, President Fred Schule.

Both men say it is important to them to bring jobs to the community. And, they add, lowering trade barriers will make it easier to do that.

“It’s a great place to work. They take care of us,” Schoolcraft said.

The company offers good pay and benefits. There’s also free soda, juice and food in the break room.

The workers are locals, but the parts they make end up on commercial airplanes flying around the world.

Schoolcraft was inserting tiny aluminum rings into heat sinks that will be shipped to Malaysia for further processing before being sent to Crane Aerospace in Lynnwood. In the end, the heat sinks will go into circuit boards used on airplanes.

“We are a link in the chain” that spans the globe, Clark said.

So, lowering trade barriers means more business for Cobalt, which can hire more locals, he said.

The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement will lower barriers and boost business for Cobalt and hundreds of other small aerospace suppliers in Washington, he said. Negotiators recently finished the agreement’s text, which must still be approved by Congress and the White House.

The huge free-trade proposal includes the U.S. and 11 Asian and Pacific Rim countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

The TPP was negotiated behind closed doors, and the text has not been made public. So, no one knows exactly what the agreement says.

Free-trade advocates in the U.S. say the agreement will spur economic activity that will help more people than it hurts, and American manufacturing will benefit from greater access to foreign markets. The agreement also includes minimum standards for labor rules, environmental quality and intellectual property.

A broad collection of groups oppose the pact, including environmental advocates, labor unions and advocates for digital consumers.

Labor groups say the Trans-Pacific Partnership will make it easier to move American jobs overseas. The Washington Fair Trade Coalition calls it a “super-size version” of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many labor activists blame for moving jobs out of the country.

At Cobalt, Schule isn’t worried about work going overseas.

Machine shops in countries where labor is cheap can’t compete on quality, which must be extremely high and consistent in aerospace. Also, Cobalt Enterprises makes many parts that have to be made in the U.S. due to federal restrictions on exporting military-related technologies.

“When a company bids us against foreign competition, we don’t play that game” by cutting the job price, he said in his office overlooking a handful of milling machines on the shopfloor.

Schule started Cobalt Enterprises in 2004 out of his garage. He’s built the company into one with a reputation for doing high-quality work on hard jobs.

Now, it fills four big buildings just outside Granite Falls and is still growing.

Cobalt’s revenues should grow by about 40 percent in 2016, Clark said.

The company is moving most of its operations to a new home in Lake Stevens in 2016. Work will continue at its current site, which will focus on expanding its high-press hydraulic system business.

Small exporters in Washington stand to benefit the most from the agreement, said Maria Contreras-Sweet, head of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Big producers can absorb the costs of international trade, which price out smaller companies.

“TPP is going to change the math” for some Washington businesses and farms looking to export, she said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

Larsen to hold meetings

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen is still figuring out his position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Starting next week, he is holding open meetings to hear voters’ thoughts on the proposed agreement. The Snohomish County meeting will be at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 14. The location has not been set. For information, call his office at 800-562-1385, or check his website at larsen.house.gov.

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