In Wisconsin, we make things

As Americans, we take pride in making things. We also have gotten pretty good at wallowing in things, as well. While there is no doubt the United States faces some significant challenges – many of our own making and some a result of external factors – we seem obsessed these days with proving we understand just how bad things are.

If I hear one more analogy to the Roman Empire, I think I am going to be sick. Ditto if I again hear the tired line, “We used to make things in America.” You know what? We still do make things. We still do it pretty damn well. And you know what else? That is especially true here in Wisconsin.

In the United States, durable and nondurable manufacturing comprise about 11 percent of our total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Wisconsin, that number is almost doubled. Manufacturing is responsible for about 20 percent of our total GDP. When you stop and think about that, it is huge. For those that have eschewed the idea of manufacturing being important to Wisconsin’s future, I would ask you to think again. There is no other sector of our economy that is even in the same area code as far as the percentage of GDP.

Do you see a lot of “made in China” or “made in Taiwan” when you go to Walmart or some other big box stores? Yes. Toys, apparel and home electronics are assembled by large numbers of low-skilled workers and that segment of manufacturing may never come back. But high-value items like medical devices and large, complicated machinery are being made here in the U.S. and big time here in Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s total exports for 2011were $22 billion: 42 percent was industrial and electrical machines and 11 percent was medical and scientific equipment.

Do we need to be concerned about places like China and India producing a growing number of skilled engineers and scientists that will ramp up the competition for manufacturing high-value items? Yes. That is one of the reasons we are seeing such an emphasis placed on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields of study. Competitive Wisconsin is doing a lot of great work in this area. They are bringing together members of the Technical Colleges, UW System and K-12 education system with employers and economic development professionals from around the state to better align our curriculum and improve pathways into these types of fields. Their BE BOLD2 initiative focuses on these workforce issues, and they will be holding briefings around the state on their final recommendations.

One of the things we need to keep in mind is that just over one quarter of Wisconsinites hold a college degree. For the three quarters of the population that don’t have a college degree, manufacturing is one of the best industries in the country in terms of wages and benefits. Manufacturing also continues to be one of those industries where you can start out on the factory floor and work your way up the ranks to management, according to David Wyss (Chief Economist for Standard and Poor’s). As he points out, this is not true in many fields: “You’re not going to start out as an orderly in a hospital and work your way up to chief surgeon.”

If you’re tired of the constant ‘woe is me’ attitude that we hear 24/7, and you want to feel good about something we are doing, you HAVE to check out this video where you will meet Craig Cegielski , the Technology Education teacher at the Eleva-Strum Central High School. Where in the Sam Hill is Eleva-Strum you ask? Well, I looked it up.

Strum is in Trempealeau County (central-west part of the state), and is a village of 411 families. Within this school district, Mr. Cegielski has created Cardinal Manufacturing. Cardinal Manufacturing is a high school vocational manufacturing program that operates as a commercial business. Students in the program make parts for paying customers. They started small, with just several machines, built up their shop through profits made, and now kids need to put together a resume and interview to get into the program. Once in, they work on a floor that is filled with high-tech manufacturing equipment (machines I couldn’t even begin to understand how to use) that produces parts that are sold statewide. This is not your dad’s high school shop class. (Seriously. Take a minute to check out the video.)

Also of note, Wisconsin’s largest business organization, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), has partnered with all kinds of groups to declare October as Manufacturing Month. They are doing a host of outreach efforts with member businesses, chambers and schools across the state to get the word out. In fact, they have created a section of their website dedicated to this promotion. (Yes, here it is again, the same website you were at to view the video about the Eleva-Strum program.)

If you’ve been paying attention as you read this post, you may have noticed the name of this blog in InBusiness Wisconsin is Transportation Matters, and you might be wondering why you haven’t read a single word about transportation yet. Well, first of all I will admit to having trouble staying on point, and second of all, if you stop and think about how incredibly important manufacturing is to Wisconsin’s economy, I hope it won’t be too big of a leap to make the connection. There are few industries that are as heavily reliant on a good transportation network as manufacturing – especially with a lot of the big stuff we manufacture here in Wisconsin.

At TDA, we recognize that transportation is so important to our state that we are launching a series that we affectionately call Transportation Truths. In each of these papers we ask: why transportation matters? Here is our inaugural “truth”:

Because there is no point in making it if you can’t move it. (visit

Take a look at our one-pager. I promise it is a quick read, with fun graphics and facts, some of which I alluded to earlier.

What I hope you are left with is this: In Wisconsin we make things. And our transportation system plays nothing short of a major role in ensuring this continues.

Craig Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin (TDA), which promotes the vitality of Wisconsin’s transportation system.

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