Innovation will drive region’s job growth: Industry leaders discuss future workforce

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:24 pm

Innovation is crucial to driving employment growth in southeastern Wisconsin’s advanced manufacturing, food and beverage, water and information technology industries.

Food and beverage companies are a historical strength of the area, and local entrepreneurs continue to generate new products, said Dick Leinenkugel, manager of business development at Tenth and Blake Beer Co., MillerCoors’ craft division.

Automation technology is creating more jobs at home for U.S. advanced manufacturing companies, said Kent Lorenz, president of the Midwest region for Pewaukee-based Ellison Technologies Inc.

The water technology startups that have been formed in the new Global Water Center are expected to create a slew of new jobs in the area, said Paul Jones, chairman of Milwaukee-based A.O. Smith Corp.

And company leaders can harness information technology to drive growth and innovation, according to Tina Chang, chief executive officer of SysLogic Inc. in Brookfield.

Dick Leinenkugel
Manager of business development at Tenth and Blake Beer Co.

The four leaders discussed the future employment outlook for their industries as part of a Dec. 13 panel discussion, “Key Industries for Job Growth,” held at the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel. The event was sponsored by Waukesha County Business Alliance, First Business Bank and BizTimes Media.

Kent Lorenz
President of the Midwest region at Ellison Technologies Inc.

The original biotechnology businesses in Wisconsin were breweries, Leinenkugel said. From the brewing industry several other companies were developed that made the associated tanks, packaging and other equipment, leading to Milwaukee’s manufacturing prowess.

Paul Jones
Chairman of A.O. Smith Corp.

Several major companies, like Nestle, Patrick Cudahy, Kikkoman and Palermo’s, have based their headquarters or large manufacturing operations in the area, he said. Packaging and bottling companies like KHS and Krones have gained a national presence in the national food and beverage industry.

Tina Chang
Chief executive officer of SysLogic Inc.

Milwaukee is centrally located and has a well-established transportation infrastructure, which makes it an attractive food and beverage manufacturing location, Leinenkugel said.

“Not only do we have that infrastructure, but we have a really terrific workforce as well,” he said. “That’s a strength, but in many ways that’s an opportunity, because that workforce is certainly aging and we’re going to need to do things to develop talent for the 21st Century in food and beverage manufacturing.”

The next wave of industry innovation is coming from the farm-to-table, local and organic food entrepreneurs in the Milwaukee area, Leinenkugel said.

“We have all the tools here in southeastern Wisconsin and the strengths and the businesses that we’re going to be well-placed for growth,” he said. “I think we’re well-positioned to leverage our strengths to build businesses that will compete in a global economy.”

Robotics are being used to remove humans from the repetitious, dangerous or pass accuracy-based tasks on advanced manufacturing floors and putting those people in areas where they can learn, adjust and adapt, Lorenz said.

“Manufacturers today are looking at what I call the next generation of technology and automation and they’re designing technologies to be fully automated and using people in areas that involve cognitive thinking, process knowledge and decision-making skills,” he said.

As a result of increased automation at home and rising global wages and transportation costs, U.S. companies are becoming more competitive with countries that complete outsourced manufacturing work. That could mean more jobs at home, Lorenz said.

Nearshoring, or manufacturing products in the region where they will be consumed, is becoming more prevalent, and the U.S. is a major consumer.

“As we become as a country but certainly as a state, competitive globally in production, it’s no longer cost effective to send all of your raw materials and designs to a foreign country with low labor,” Lorenz said. “We now can manufacture here, and we’re seeing that explode. Virtually every one of our customers is looking for skilled labor.”

Growing the water hub

Jones gave an update on The Water Council’s efforts to grow a global water hub in southeastern Wisconsin, and some of the infrastructure that has been established to make water business growth possible.

While the Global Water Center the council established in Walker’s Point is new, the early returns have been positive, he said.

“We’re already getting some hits,” Jones said. “We’ve got some companies that have grown in the area and we’ve got some companies that have relocated to the area. I’m convinced it’ll be positive, but I don’t think expecting thousands of jobs over the next five to 10 years is unreasonable.”

If Milwaukee can make an impact on the global water crisis, it will lead economic development and job growth in the industry, he said.

“First of all there’s a need,” Jones said. “Over 1 billion people a day in this world struggle to get semi-healthy water to drink.”

Milwaukee also has the only school of freshwater sciences in the country, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which will attract top talent to fill the expected job growth in technology ranging from point of use to municipal systems, he said.

“When I think about job growth and new industries and new businesses being started, I think of the majority of those being driven by technology,” Jones said.

Invest in IT

Technology is also driving existing companies’ growth and innovation, Chang said. As such, companies should look at IT investment as more than a necessity.

“It’s really that shift in businesses saying I don’t just need to invest in IT to keep the lights on, but I’m going to invest in innovation via technology to drive the business growth in a different way,” she said.

There has been major progress made recently in the formation of Wisconsin venture capital and angel funding groups, as well as state incentives awarded to entrepreneurs. But there’s still more to do to attract talent to the region.

“People need to feel optimistic that if they embark on startups, technology startups and/or innovative product initiatives, that the necessary investment and funding will be here in the region,” Chang said.

Recruitment and retention could be approached as a group effort, with several companies investing in talent from an economically depressed area like Detroit, she said. If several employees were recruited to Milwaukee from another area at once, an instant community would be created and they would be more likely to stay.

“I don’t see any reason why small and large companies couldn’t band together and go to those regions and collectively recruit,” Chang said.

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