Manufacturing continues to be a key cog in Wisconsin’s economic engine, with a focus on maintaining and creating high-skilled jobs that offer family-supporting wages.
Manufacturing accounts for about 16 percent, (about 450,000) of all jobs in Wisconsin. In recent years, the state has seen a shift toward advanced manufacturing, meaning that jobs on the factory floor in many plants have evolved beyond low-skilled positions that offer substandard wages. Instead, the emphasis in many plants has been on creating a modern, clean and flexible work environment that produces more complex products, with workers often responsible for multiple tasks. Computer technology is prevalent in many plants, and more skills are required to take on the work as manufacturers continue to put to rest the long-outdated image of manufacturing as a “dumb and dirty” career.
A Global Competitive Advantage
“Advanced manufacturing keeps us competitive on a worldwide basis and is allowing manufacturers to bring back work that had been shifted to China, Thailand and other overseas spots,” said Buckley Brinkman, executive director of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP), a nonprofit organization based in Madison and with statewide offices that offers programs and services aimed at making manufacturers more competitive and efficient in their operations.
“It’s made manufacturers realize that a 12,000-mile long supply chain isn’t the best idea in the world.”
Among the companies bringing work back to Wisconsin from overseas is Oak Creek-based Master Lock Co., which operates a factory in Milwaukee’s central city. The padlock manufacturer has “insourced” more than 100 jobs back to the Milwaukee factory from China. The company’s efforts drew a visit from President Barack Obama in February 2012.
The state’s manufacturers have been successful in competing in worldwide markets, and continue in many cases to take steps to improve their operations, realizing that those that aren’t proactive will struggle to survive.
“We keep working to find practical solutions for businesses,” Brinkman said.
Much of the WMEP’s efforts are focused on getting companies to adopt the concepts of Next Generation Manufacturing. This describes an organization that performs at world-class levels in six broad areas: growth, innovation, continuous improvement, working with suppliers and customers as partners, global engagement and profitable sustainability.
The state’s manufacturing sector continues to show signs of growth and recovery from the recession, Brinkman said.
“We’ve seen strong growth over the past three and a half years,” he said. “Manufacturers are busy.”
A broad spectrum of
Wisconsin is home to manufacturers that serve a wide range of industries and produce a diverse array of products.
Publicly traded Oshkosh Corp., the state’s largest manufacturer, derives a large portion of its revenue from defense contracts. The Oshkosh-based company’s defense division is an industry-leading global designer and manufacturer of tactical and protected military vehicles.
Last year, Oshkosh Defense marked the delivery of its 100,000th military vehicle. The company currently is working under a contract for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program’s engineering, manufacturing and development phase. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle aims to replace many of the U.S. military’s aged vehicles with a lightweight option that offers greater protection, mobility and transportability.
Wisconsin also is home to Kohler Co. A global leader in cutting edge design engineering, Kohler is best known among consumers for its bathroom and kitchen products, including toilets, baths, showers and sinks. Kohler, which is family-controlled, also manufactures small engines, generators and owns golf courses and resorts in Wisconsin and Scotland. The company offers tours of some of its plants to the public and operates the popular Kohler Design Center in the resort village of Kohler to showcase its bath and kitchen products.
A Skilled Workforce for
a Skilled Profession
According to an October 2012 report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the skills gap in advanced manufacturing is responsible for 80,000-100,000 full-time, skilled positions being left unfilled in the U.S. Other reports have placed that number as high as 600,000, but all agree that it’s imperative to train more workers for the jobs of the future or face a serious downturn in manufacturing growth, the single sector that has arguably done the most to raise the country out of the Great Recession.
In Wisconsin, steps have been taken to improve the perception of careers in manufacturing and address manufacturers’ demand for workers. The Waukesha County Manufacturing Alliance, a program of the Waukesha County Business Alliance, has developed a partnership with area schools designed to promote careers in manufacturing.
The program involves giving high school students, their parents and teachers tours of local factories and construction sites, along with technical education facilities at Waukesha County Technical College.
The Alliance also launched the “Dream It. Do It.” program in Southeastern Wisconsin. The program, developed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Manufacturing Alliance, its research and education affiliate, works to shatter stereotypes about careers in manufacturing.
Companies like Brillion-based Ariens Co., an outdoor power equipment manufacturer, have taken matters into their own hands in boosting recruitment efforts and promoting careers in manufacturing.
Ariens has made a major investment to build a technology and education center at Brillion High School. The partnership between Ariens and the school began six years ago.”It’s not just about the infrastructure that we built, it’s about the attitude and the mindset,” said Dan Ariens, company president and CEO.
As part of the initiative, Ariens places its manufacturing and engineering staff into the classroom several times a year. The company also brings Brillion school students to its manufacturing plant.”We’ll actually get them engaged in a real live product development process,” said Ariens. “We have snow blowers on the market today that have parts designed by these high school kids. It’s sort of a live curriculum.”
Another unique program, Second Chance Partners for Education, is working to generate interest in manufacturing careers. The program, designed as an alternative high school, got its start as a way to create a pipeline of employees for Genesee-based Generac Power Systems Inc., a manufacturer of portable and standby generators and other engine-powered products.
The program has been expanded to include other manufacturers, such as SPX Transformer Solutions Inc., Waukesha; Tailored Label Products, Menomonee Falls; J.W. Speaker Corp., Germantown; Industrial Towel & Uniform Inc., New Berlin; Lavelle Industries Inc., Burlington; Create-A-Pack Foods Inc., Ixonia; and Lindquist Machine Corp., Green Bay.