Wisconsin’s hiring and growing: Is it a blueprint for others?

June 4, 2007
A blueprint maintenance professionals, plants and governments throughout the nation can follow to realize growth and attract new workers just might be in Wisconsin.

A blueprint maintenance professionals, plants and governments throughout the nation can follow to realize growth and attract new workers just might be in Wisconsin. There, manufacturers are confident in the state’s economy with 43% predicting new hires and 47% predicting increased capital investments, according to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC, www.wmc.org) survey results released in May. Wisconsin is second only to Indiana as a thriving manufacturing state.

“While we have some big manufacturers, we have a whole lot of small manufacturers,” explains Jim Haney, WMC’s president. “The nature of manufacturing in Wisconsin is family-owned and private. Those that are surviving know that if you stay a commodity producer, you’ll lose. There’s a lot of emphasis on new product development or a continued product with extraordinary service.” For example, there’s a furniture manufacturer that can take an order for a custom-made couch on Monday and deliver it by Friday.

Some 47% of the survey respondents said they would increase capital spending in 2007, with more than half citing modernization and increased efficiency and 48% citing increased capacity.

A 2006 Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership survey asked Wisconsin manufacturers what tactics they plan to use to promote growth.. Among the findings: 95% plan to build business with existing customers; 69% plan to enter new markets; 67% plan to develop new products; 49% plan to develop new technologies; and 21% plan to acquire another business.

“Companies have taken to heart that they can’t just ride on their laurels,” says Haney. “We’ve seen those companies that do go out of business. They didn’t invest in upgrading the skill of their people. Smaller companies find being lean is an advantage.”

There are as many as 14,000 manufacturers in Wisconsin. The vast majority have fewer than 100 employees, says Haney. They’re focused on growth and expansion. According to the 2006 Milwaukee 7 Manufacturing Survey, 62% of respondents expect to increase employment, capital investment or facility space in the next 12 months. While 45% expect to hire workers, 50% plan capital investments and 28% plan to expand their facilities.

“Wisconsin manufacturers are investing in their plants to increase efficiency, and they’re hiring workers to get the job done,” says Haney. They are restructuring production lines and implementing robotics to improve productivity. And they are making a greater investment in people.

More than 43% said they would increase hiring, with 43% reporting their employment would stay the same and only 9% making cuts. The survey found the greatest demand for workers in the area of skilled production.

Highly trained manufacturing professionals are in demand. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development reports that the state’s manufacturers will have 7,620 job openings each year through 2014. Another critical component for success is involvement in education. More than 55% report involvement in education and training partnerships in their communities.

None of the things Wisconsin is doing is really new. The WMC was founded in 1911 and later merged with the state chamber of commerce, the state manufacturing association and the safety council. Way back then, partnerships were forged with education, according to Haney.

At one high school, there are 26 welding booths to teach students how to weld, so they can then learn to operate the automated welding machine that’s in another room at the school. Teachers are invited to meetings about the state of manufacturing. There’s a summer school program to provide an economic education for young people so they understand how the economy and business work. For 26 years, college campuses provide computer simulation games focusing on manufacturing skills. There are hands-on pre-engineering courses in many of the high schools and middle schools, says Haney. The students visit modern plants to see all the cool automated equipment they’d get to run if they decide to work in the field.

The overall key is a well-coordinated effort across all boundaries. Retirees help teach new workers how to succeed. Corporate safety awards are bestowed regularly. Manufacturer of the Year awards and other honors are doled out. “We emphasize excellence and publicize the heck out of it,” says Haney. One company owner realized he had 900 years of experience walking out the door with 30 people who had 30 years experience each retiring. He organized a recognition ceremony for those workers.

“All the good ideas are out there. All the programs are out there,” says Haney. “We don’t need to create them. We need to find and promote them.”

E-mail Managing Editor Ken Schnepf at [email protected].

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